Twenty months ago — four months into President Trump’s tenure — I tried my best to warn members of his team that even at that early stage, if you worked for Trump, it was time to quit. Whatever initial enthusiasm you had for the man, whatever your ambitions, however indispensable you thought you were in the attempt to smooth his rough edges, the smart move was to get out.
“Do it now,” I wrote, to preserve your professional reputation or a semblance of dignity.
But if, at this stage, you’re like former White House aide Cliff Sims, recently out with a book about Trump’s discombobulated “Team of Vipers” — but still telling interviewers how “proud” you were to work for him — you’re too late.
If you’re former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R), currently on the talk-show circuit, regaling us with tales of Trump’s hubris — mere weeks after interviewing for the White House chief of staff job — you’re too late. If you’re former congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), and you just accepted the job of acting White House chief of staff — your third Trump administration gig — the word “acting” in your title is an insufficient fig leaf. You’re definitely acting, just not in the way you think.
If you’re former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), flailing as you leverage your past credibility to mount Trump’s legal defense, you’re not just too late, you’re pathetic. If you’re national security adviser John Bolton, at this point you’re a prop. If you seek redemption some day, after leaving the administration, I hope you have a verifiable story to tell about persuading Trump to stand down from an ill-advised missile strike.
There was a window of time during which giving Trump a chance was justifiable out of a sense of duty to country. You might have been vindicated for doing so if Trump had surprised us all and made good on his boast that, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.” But that window closed. You had ample opportunity to see, up close, the capriciousness, vainglory and allergic reaction to facts that the rest of us saw from afar. If you’re just now disavowing Trump, or explaining away your support for him, don’t bother. You own it. Leaving 2016 to 2019 blank on your LinkedIn page won’t save you from disgrace.
Sure, you might get a book deal. And you’ll probably find private sector employment — K Street is still a cozy hideout for plenty of Washington rejects. But history will remember you as an enabler, not a truth-teller. If you were still employed by the president or tap dancing on his behalf at any time in recent months, his stink is on you, and it won’t wash off.
There are exceptions, of course: The civil servants who staffed government departments before Trump’s time in office, and who will remain after he leaves, certainly deserve no blame. Economic adviser Gary Cohn left the White House after fighting a losing, but noble, battle to rein in the White House’s delusional trade-war faction. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis performed a public service by writing a resignation letter that cut ties with Trump in the clearest possible terms: “You have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours” is Cabinet-speak for take this job and shove it.
At best, though, most of the rest are Omarosas, passing off the obvious as insight: When Omarosa Manigault Newman left the White House staff, we didn’t need her to tell us that Trump spouts race-baiting drivel. He’s done it out in the open for years.
At worst, they are like Sims: He served in the administration for well over a year, then found a way to distance himself just enough to sell a juicy tell-all, but he still can’t come clean about the president’s foulest tendencies. When the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner pressed Sims to assess Trump’s both-sides-ism in the wake of torch-lit Charlottesville chants of “Jews will not replace us,” Sims hedged: “I would love to see the president use his bully pulpit for that more effectively.” When asked to explain the genesis of Trump’s birtherism, all Sims had to say was: “I have no idea.”
In the words of Ed Lover: C’mon, son. Lack of self-awareness is a terrible quality, even for a toady.
From this point on, any freshly departed Trump staffer’s public postmortem will only help fill in the blanks. It will add nothing to the by-now-plain-as-day big picture: Trump is the worst president ever. Only a suck-up won’t admit it.
If you’re the next press secretary, policy adviser or White House counsel contemplating a melodramatic, self-absolving throwing-in of your Trump-caddying towel, don’t expect hosannas from the public in return for your pseudo-courage. You might hope Trump’s stench will fade, but I’ll still smell it. If there’s any justice left, everybody else will, too. Like a bad ‘80s haircut, your political cowardice will be forever preserved on the Interwebs. Your 15 minutes of shame won’t rehabilitate you, because selling out your Trump-world cronies can’t erase your original sin: selling out your country.
So peddle your fictional nonfiction. Write your anonymous op-eds. It won’t matter. For a year, or two, or more, you stood athwart history yelling: “Thank you, sir! May I have another?” You served a man bent on division and distraction. You helped him make America grate again. Even after he leaves office, you won’t be able to live it down.