President Trump’s senior aides are increasingly airing their private disagreements publicly, exposing a widening rift between the president and key members of his administration over his handling of racial divisions exposed by white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
Trump — who has fumed at the media’s criticism of his response to Charlottesville — is also annoyed at similar criticism coming from within his administration, especially from National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to people in regular touch with the White House.
Over the weekend, Tillerson suggested that Trump “speaks for himself” rather than for the country’s values in his reaction to Charlottesville. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also counseled U.S. troops to “hold the line until our country gets back to respecting each other” and is able to “get the power of inspiration back.”
And Cohn sharply criticized the president’s handling of the situation in an interview with the Financial Times last week.
Among Trump’s allies, the emerging voices of dissent are being likened to a “mutiny” by disloyal aides. But so far, Trump has not taken any action to dismiss anyone, to the disappointment of those same allies.
“You should not air the dirty laundry with the president in public,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and political ally. “On a personal level, he should feel betrayed because he has been.”
Cohn became the first administration official to publicly discuss his disagreement with the president over Charlottesville, telling the Financial Times that Trump “must do better in consistently and unequivocally” condemning hate groups. Trump was widely criticized for doubling down on his assessment that “many sides” were to blame for violence in Charlottesville after a rally organized by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan turned deadly.
Cohn, who is Jewish, said that he had come under enormous pressure from friends and associates to speak out and that he aired his disagreement with the president bluntly in private. But Trump was irritated that Cohn fueled the public controversy over Trump’s comments.
“There’s a lot of frustration,” said one Republican in frequent touch with the White House who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “A lot of Trump’s frustration with his staff is that no matter what he does, if he has a good day, it never lasts for more than 24 hours, and it’s always because he does something, but he blames others.”
Coming from the nation’s top diplomat, Tillerson’s assertion Sunday that Trump does not speak for the country’s values produced particularly deep reverberations.
Tillerson also said that he and the State Department speak for American values of tolerance and equality, and he rejected criticism from a United Nations committee last week that the Trump administration had set a poor example for the rest of the world. Tillerson told Fox News host Chris Wallace that he does not think Trump’s remarks leave other nations confused about what America stands for.
“We express America’s values from the State Department — our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over,” Tillerson said in the “Fox News Sunday” interview, “and that message has never changed.”
The comments have only added to long-simmering mutual frustration between Trump and his secretary of state, who has had policy, personnel and personality disagreements with the president and some of his aides in recent months. Tillerson reportedly toyed with resigning this summer over frustrations with the White House on policy and administrative matters, but quashed rumors of a “Rexit” by telling reporters, “I’m not going anywhere.”
On Monday, a day after his comments on Fox, Tillerson dined with Trump and Vice President Pence at the White House, a meeting that State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond said was focused on planning for 2018 travel and the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York next month.
“This whole idea that he’s considering anything — it just doesn’t add up,” Hammond said, referring to speculation that Tillerson might leave the administration.
Trump is also being influenced by some allies who have long been suspicious of aides in his orbit, including Tillerson, Mattis and Cohn, whom they believe represent establishment views and are, at best, only loosely tied to Trump’s agenda.
Tillerson and a close circle of aides have clashed with White House officials over the many job vacancies and sense of torpor at the State Department, with each side blaming the other for failing to move nominees through the hiring and Senate confirmation process.
The former ExxonMobil chief executive has also been blunt about his policy disagreements with the president and with other Trump advisers. Tillerson said he thought the United States would have been better served by remaining in the Paris climate accord and trying to amend it than by quitting it entirely, as Trump announced he was doing.
And although Tillerson supported the approach to the expansion of forces in Afghanistan that Trump announced last week, he has crossed some Trump allies who think he has influenced the president to be softer on “radical Islamic terror,” a term Trump once used regularly as a candidate but has since uttered far less often.
Cohn has also been at odds with some Trump supporters who count him among a clutch of White House aides who are more closely aligned with Democrats than the president’s agenda.
The prospect of disloyalty in Trump’s Cabinet has only fueled suspicion among some of his allies, including those who have been pushed out of the White House under new Chief of Staff John F. Kelly but still maintain lines of communication with the president.
“We have a lot of people in the White House of Donald J. Trump who not only have been comfortable working for Hillary [Clinton], but they probably would have had a Cabinet post as well,” said Sebastian Gorka, a White House aide who was ousted Friday, a week after his ally, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, was removed from his administration post. “That is not sound, that is not what the American people voted for.
“The president knows it,” Gorka added.
Mattis has been far more circumspect in his views. The comments to troops caught on tape over the weekend showed the retired general delivering a pep talk to service members, urging them to remain vigilant in defense of a divided country that he portrayed as having lost its way. Those comments were interpreted by some as a critique of Trump’s leadership.
“They all agreed to serve for a number of different reasons — patriotism was certainly one of the primary motivations,” said Eliot Cohen, who was a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration and has been a vocal critic of Trump. “Very few of them are there because they love him.
“Some of them are thinking: ‘This is potentially a very dangerous time for the country. I will go in and do my best, in effect, to save the country,’ ” he added.
Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.