Nearly every general, political operative, business executive, policy wonk or politician who has gone to work for the Trump administration has debased himself — by defending an indefensible policy or corrupt act, trying to explain some bonkers presidential tweet or having the rug pulled out from under him. Any pompous mandarin who enters Trump’s orbit departs with a sullied image and a diminished reputation. No one ever comes out ahead by doing business with a con artist.
The latest example comes from Georgia, courtesy of Gov. Brian Kemp. Trump has repeatedly called for a swift reopening of the American economy, even if it leads to an avalanche of coronavirus deaths. In the days before Kemp’s April 19 announcement that he would allow some nonessential businesses to reopen within a week, Trump tweeted calls to “LIBERATE” several states in which right-wing protesters were demanding an end to stay-at-home orders. Axios reports, “Trump, in general terms, had offered support to Kemp in their previous phone calls, leading Kemp to believe the president had his back on his plan.” Then Trump reversed himself and threw Kemp under the bus in a press briefing. “It’s just too soon … because safety has to predominate,” the president said.
Kemp, whom Democrats especially despise because he purged voters from the rolls when he was Georgia’s secretary of state, should have known better than to think Trump had his back — or anyone else’s. He also should have known better than to count on constancy from a leader who has already reversed himself repeatedly on almost every aspect of the pandemic.
You’d think that Republicans would have learned by now not to trust Trump, who has churned through countless acolytes who have left the White House on bad terms. Consider them the political equivalent of all those lenders, tenants and contractors Trump cheated in his real estate business, or the fans he defrauded with his bogus Trump University.
The first wave of Republicans to degrade themselves carrying water for Trump appeared during the 2016 campaign. Jeff Sessions, a longtime nativist, was the first senator to endorse Trump. His reward was appointment as U.S. attorney general. But in showing a few basic professional norms while in that role, Sessions disappointed Trump. Recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference enraged the president. Trump began to insult Sessions publicly, calling him “weak” and “ineffective” — and privately calling him worse epithets, according to journalist Bob Woodward. Ultimately, Trump fired Sessions and replaced him with Matthew G. Whitaker, a more pliant loyalist.
Other Trump campaign flunkies weren’t lucky enough to get a job from him in the first place. Then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani shamelessly flacked for Trump and served his needs in 2016. Giuliani went on TV to defend Trump when few would after the Access Hollywood tape of Trump boasting about committing serial sexual assault came out. Christie was Trump’s opening act on the campaign trail, leading the New Yorker to describe him as Trump’s “manservant.” Trump repaid them with disdain. As Time noted in an article on Christie, “He has been publicly humiliated by Trump, who audibly told him in a rally to ‘get on the plane and go home’ and mocked him for eating too many Oreos.”
Christie was fired from his role as head of Trump’s transition team, and neither he nor Giuliani got jobs in the administration. More recently, Trump brought Giuliani on as an unpaid personal attorney whose embarrassing performances on television spinning wild conspiracy theories on Trump’s behalf have destroyed what was left of the reputation of the man once known as “America’s Mayor.”
Even the rare Republican apostate may be someone who already got burned by Trump. Take Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator to vote for convicting Trump in his impeachment trial. During the 2016 primaries, Romney vociferously opposed Trump’s candidacy, describing Trump as “a phony” who was “playing the American public for suckers.” But as soon as Trump won, Romney became a sucker himself, placing a fulsome, congratulatory phone call to the president and praising Trump to the press as he auditioned for secretary of state. “Aides (to Trump) said Romney would have to grovel to be considered and so he did, gushing over the man who had derided him as a ‘loser’ who ‘choked like a dog’ in his 2012 campaign,” columnist Margaret Carlson reported during the 2016 transition period. “Romney said that by getting elected Trump ‘did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in.’ ”
Perhaps Romney should have remembered his own earlier warning about Trump: “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” As any veteran Trump observer could have told Romney, Trump was probably just pretending to consider the former Republican presidential nominee to make him supplicate.
In retrospect, Romney should consider himself lucky that he was passed over for the Cabinet post. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had to deal with the highhanded meddling of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In one particularly demeaning instance, Kushner took the Mexican foreign secretary to dinner in Washington and Tillerson only found out his counterpart was in town when they happened to be in the same restaurant. The sabotage of Tillerson culminated in Trump firing him while he was on a diplomatic trip in Africa. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly then shared with reporters that Tillerson, who was sick with a stomach bug, had been on the toilet when he got the news.
The list of supposedly savvy veteran Washington players who went to work in the Trump administration only to be belittled and undermined by the president, then dumped unceremoniously, is too long to detail individually here. Examples include former national security adviser John Bolton, former director of national intelligence Daniel Coats and former defense secretary Jim Mattis.
Trump’s congressional allies also get burned, especially if they suggest he is capable of growth or maturation. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) infamously claimed after she voted against convicting Trump of impeachable offenses that Trump “has learned from this case” and he “will be much more cautious in the future.” When asked about Collins’s comments, Trump embarrassed her by declaring he had nothing to learn because he’d done nothing wrong in the first place. Then he went on a rampage of retribution against anyone in the administration who had testified against him. It was exasperating for liberals to watch Collins, a supposed moderate from a swing state, pretend to think Trump would change. But at least they got to chuckle in satisfaction when Trump promptly proved her wrong.
It is, of course, more typical of liberals to feel empathy for the victims of Trump’s scams. But, unlike the working stiffs Trump often cheats, this group of political sellouts has no excuse for not knowing better. These are experienced, educated, prominent people who allowed themselves to be taken in by the lure of more wealth, prominence or power. At least they deserve what they get.