After President Trump sent out two halfhearted tweets calling on the angry mob he had encouraged to remain peaceful, Matthews walked to the West Wing’s lower press office where, in front of several colleagues, she appeared visibly shaken. Several hours later, Trump finally put out a video calling on his supporters to leave the Capitol and go home, but Matthews was disturbed by the president’s ad-libbed remarks in which he called the protesters “very special” and said, “We love you.”
As night fell and the Secret Service ushered most staffers home in advance of the District’s 6 p.m. curfew, Matthews grabbed her blazer and the half-dozen pairs of high heels stored under her desk, and put them in her bag. She knew she wouldn’t be returning.
“I knew I could no longer serve in the role effectively, and I couldn’t walk into the building the following day and act like everything was fine, because it was indefensible,” said Matthews, who sent out her resignation letter later that evening.
The violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, incited by Trump just 14 days before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, set off a dramatic wave of resignations and attempts at distancing — from Cabinet secretaries to former senior advisers to West Wing aides like Matthews. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned, as did deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, Melania Trump’s Chief of Staff Stephanie Grisham and White House social secretary Anna Cristina “Rickie” Niceta, among others.
For critics of Trump and his allies, the public denunciations and resignations are too little, too late — more performative outrage than genuine remorse or consternation. They greet the moves with skepticism, arguing that many seemed intended as a résumé-burnisher by White House officials preparing to reenter the job market after as many as four years in the Trump administration.
Critics also point to other controversies during Trump’s tenure that they view as similarly egregious and ask: Why now?
Trump’s presidency, after all, is littered with crises of conscience — his Muslim ban; his failure to condemn the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville; his decision to separate undocumented immigrant children from their parents and put them in cages; and his tear-gassing of largely peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, to name a few. Those episodes prompted little condemnation or soul-searching from those in his orbit, at least not publicly.
An administration where former top economic adviser Gary Cohn voiced his “distress” to the Financial Times in the wake of Charlottesville, but only actually resigned after a dispute over tariffs, is hardly a bastion of courage and conviction, critics say.
“What is kind of funny in a schadenfreude way is you can see they’re making a calculation that’s happening before our eyes — they’re doing this calculation of, for future employment, do I want to stand by Trump as things seems to be getting worse or would it be better if I showed some sort of dignified moment and left on my own accord?” said Will Ritter, a Republican consultant.
But in the wake of the violent attack on the Capitol, which left five people dead, Ritter argued, “They’re making a calculation that frankly won’t matter.”
Jason Miller, a top Trump adviser, said some of these former staffers probably will find themselves isolated by inviting the ire of both pro- and anti-Trump constituencies. “If you’re trying to build your résumé, this is the wrong way to do it,” Miller said.
But many who recently stepped down or spoke out said the insurrection against the government they served marked a crisis of a different magnitude, and that their decisions to come forward reflected apolitical motives.
Former White House communications director Alyssa Farah left the administration in early December, as it became abundantly clear that Trump had no path to electoral victory. “But I hadn’t expected to say anything more than that until the attack on the Capitol, which was a direct result of misleading information being given to the public, and lives were lost,” she said.
Speaking out, Farah said, was a simple decision. “It stands alone from other difficult moments in the administration in that five people died, and one was a member of law enforcement,” she said, adding that the protesters “were just following their commander in chief who was telling them that democracy and their way of life was under threat.”
Grisham, meanwhile, who joined Trump’s team in 2015 as a press liaison and served as White House press secretary before ending up as the first lady’s chief of staff, did not mention Trump or the insurrection in her brief statement. Someone familiar with her thinking said Grisham had been considering leaving the administration for several months over tensions with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as well as helping with a sick family member, and that the attack on the Capitol was her tipping point.
Alex Conant, a co-founder of the bipartisan public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies, said he understands why the attack seemed to mark a red line for so many administration officials.
“I know for a fact that a lot of people that work for Trump were genuinely disturbed by what they saw and by his reaction to it, and as a result don’t want to continue to be associated with him,” said Conant, a former senior adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “At this point, the only way to break with him is to resign.”
The resignations and public condemnations from current and former administration officials were swift and relatively widespread. Former attorney general William P. Barr, one of Trump’s most fervent and loyal defenders, released a statement calling Trump’s conduct “inexcusable” and “a betrayal of his office and supporters.” Former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney resigned from his post as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, writing on Twitter, “We didn’t sign up for what you saw yesterday.” And Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to the president, released a lengthy statement on Twitter describing herself as “sad,” “angry” and “disgusted,” and calling the violence “outrageous and inexcusable.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a vocal Trump ally and presidential golf partner, spoke on the Senate floor in the hours after the attack, recounting how he and the president had had “a hell of a journey,” but declaring, “Enough is enough.”
Yet just two days later, he spent several hours with the president and this week flew with him on Air Force One to visit Alamo, Tex.
“It should be a no-brainer — it’s not a profile in courage,” Ritter said. “Resigning with so little time left that you don’t even miss a paycheck isn’t a principled stand; it’s beating rush hour by 15 minutes.”
Anyone who resigned for reasons of personal ambition probably will be disappointed, according to several Republican operatives. One such strategist — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still has friends working in the White House and doesn’t want to make their job prospects even more daunting — said that especially after the Capitol attack, simply having “Trump” on your résumé could be problematic.
“I have had clients ask me to reassure them that we won’t be hiring Trump people in the last 48 hours,” this person said, “and I’ve had big corporate clients ask how they should navigate their past support for Republicans who are close to Trump.”
Conant said Trump alumni — even those who did resign or condemn the insurrection — should expect more of the same. “Coming out of Trumpworld we haven’t seen a lot of Trump officials landing corporate jobs, and that’s unlikely to change now,” he said. “Companies try to avoid political controversy and this is all pretty hot right now.”
Still, Washington is a town full of strivers, a city notoriously short on memory and long on ambition. Jim Courtovich, a managing partner at Sphere Consulting, a public relations and lobbying firm, warned that although overdoing “feigned shock and disgust toward your former boss so late in the game” could lead to charges of disloyalty, former administration officials are likely to get second acts.
“Time heals and Washington loves a comeback but this will be a case-by-case basis,” Courtovich wrote in an email. “If you were on controversial matters, like immigration, say goodbye to corporate America for a while and look for that niche spot.”
Matthews said the decision was a deeply personal one and she doesn’t fault any of her colleagues who chose to remain in the administration, but that leaving was the right option for her. And although she understands the criticism, she said she is clear-eyed about her future and tendered her resignation after chatting with friends and family — some of whom tried to talk her out of it.
“My decision had nothing to do with distancing myself from this administration,” said Matthews, who joined the White House last June. “The people that hate me and won’t want to hire me still aren’t going to want to hire me. My resigning isn’t going to change their opinion of me working in the Trump administration.”
“I chose to work in the Trump administration because I believed in his agenda, I believed in the policies we enacted, I believed in a lot of what we accomplished,” Matthews continued, “but what I saw take place Wednesday overshadowed all the good we’ve done these past four years.”