Thursday, May 17, 2018

The moral hazard of working for a corrupt administration

Those who work for a corrupt political administration can expect to have their own careers damaged. There were many warnings about this prior to Trump's inauguration. One of the early casualties was campaign manager Paul Manafort, who resigned several months before the election over concerns about his connections to Russia and, two years later, remains under increasing legal pressure.

Upon Trump's inauguration in January 2017, Republican commentator and former Bush speechwriter David Frum identified four personal risks of associating with the new administration: exposure to Trump's "finances...including tax and corruption investigations"; to his "clandestine contacts with hostile foreign governments"; to enabling his lies, especially if they become illegal, such as when he speaks to Congress or speaks under oath; and to his general disregard for the law.

"A law-abiding person will want to stay as far as possible from the personal service of President Trump. As demonstrated by the sad example of Press Secretary Sean Spicer spouting glaring lies on his first day on the job, this president will demand that his aides do improper things — and the low standards of integrity in Trump's entourage create a culture of conformity to those demands.

* * *

Good people can do the right thing even under pressure. But be aware: The pressure to do the wrong thing can be intense — and the closer one approaches to the center of presidential power and prestige, the more intense the pressure becomes. It's easy to imagine that you’d emulate Walters when reading the book he wrote four decades after the fact. But in the moment? In the Oval Office? Face to face with the president of the United States?

So maybe the very first thing to consider, if the invitation comes, is this: How well do you know yourself? How sure are you that you indeed would say no?

And then humbly consider this second troubling question: If the Trump administration were as convinced as you are that you would do the right thing — would they have asked you in the first place?

Reflecting on a first week in office that included "big splashy pronouncements such as announcing a wall that he would force Mexico to pay for, even as the Mexican foreign minister held talks with American officials in Washington" and "quiet, but no less dangerous bureaucratic orders, such as kicking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of meetings of the Principals’ Committee, the senior foreign-policy decision-making group below the president, while inserting his chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, into them," Eliot A. Cohen wrote: "In an epic week beginning with a dark and divisive inaugural speech, extraordinary attacks on a free press, a visit to the CIA that dishonored a monument to anonymous heroes who paid the ultimate price, and now an attempt to ban selected groups of Muslims (including interpreters who served with our forces in Iraq and those with green cards, though not those from countries with Trump hotels, or from really indispensable states like Saudi Arabia), he has lived down to expectations."

He added that the president embodies the opposite of "reverence for the truth" and "sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness."

He said:

"Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have."

He cautioned:

"To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. ... To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction."

Eliot Cohen also warned professional conservatives: "Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it." Indeed: "Many conservative foreign-policy and national-security experts saw the dangers last spring and summer, which is why we signed letters denouncing not Trump’s policies but his temperament; not his program but his character." He predicts that this president will "fail" because: "With every act he makes new enemies for himself and strengthens their commitment; he has his followers, but he gains no new friends."

Traditionally, Senate-confirmed officials submit resignation letters when a new president takes office, with the expectation that nonpartisan people will be kept on board, since "[o]nly career officials have the decades of institutional knowledge required to keep the nation’s agencies running," Ronan Farrow wrote in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Foreign Service officers must eventually have a presidentially-appointed job or, eventually, be forced to retire. Not being given a job means the same thing as being fired. One diplomat said she was informed: "Your assignments are broken. Who knows if you have your next job, maybe you don’t. It’s utter chaos. And it’s out of the blue. No reason." Many dismissals happened around the time of Rex Tillerson's Feb. 1, 2017 confirmation as Secretary of State; Tillerson would later claim not to have been aware of some of these dismissals. Farrow wrote: “In the first days of 2018, when I asked Tillerson about Countryman and the wave of forced retirements, the secretary of state stared at me, unblinking, then said: 'I’m not familiar with that one.' A little over a month later, Tillerson was gone too: another casualty of a fickle president and a State Department in disarray.”

In May 2018, addressing the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson said: "If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom." On Dec. 6, 2018, interviewed publicly by a journalist during a cancer treatment fundraising event in Houston, Tillerson recalled: "So often, the president would say 'Here's what I want to do, and here's how I want to do it,' and I would have to say to him, 'Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law.'" He also described Trump as "a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, 'This is what I believe.'" Trump responded by tweeting the following afternoon that Tillerson was "dumb as a rock" and "lazy as hell," that he lacked the "mental capacity" to run the State Department, and that the State Department was finally thriving under Tillerson's successor Mike Pompeo.

In February 2017, Paul Waldman said of the President that "the idea of him having a coherent ideology is absurd" and that what he has instead is "a remarkable lack of human virtues and an even more remarkable set of character flaws". If there were a terrorist attack,

"he won't try to calm people down or remind them of how safe we are. He'll do exactly the opposite: ramp up people's fear and anger, using the attack (now matter how minor it might have been) as justification for a range of policy moves. He said during the campaign that he wanted to put mosques under surveillance; that could be just the start of a range of harsh actions directed at American Muslims. ... And given his regular, personal attacks on judges that don't rule as he'd like, there's a genuine question of whether he'd obey lawful court orders that restrained him in a situation where he felt he had the advantage. ...there will be some kind of attack eventually, and Trump will try to exploit it. The more we understand that now, the better prepared we'll be to push back when the time comes."

Allan J. Lichtman wrote in his book The Case for Impeachment, published in April 2017:

"Even early in his presidency, Donald Trump exhibits the same tendencies that led Nixon to violate the most basic standards of morality and threaten the foundations of our democracy. Both Nixon and Trump exhibited a determination to never quit, to win at all costs, to attack and never back down, and to flout conventional rules and restraints. But as ambitious and headstrong as they were, they also shared a compulsion to deflect blame, and they were riddled with insecurities. They exploited the resentments of white working class Americans and split the world into enemies and loyalists. In the first month of his presidency Trump talked more about ‘enemies’ than any other president in history. Neither man allowed the law, the truth, the free press, or the potential for collateral damage to others to impede their personal agendas. They cared little about ideology but very much about adulation and power. They had little use for checks and balances and stretched the reach of presidential authority to its outer limits. They obsessed over secrecy and thirsted for control without dissent."

Frank Rich wrote “Watching the Downfall of a Presidency in Real Time” for New York Magazine on July 12, 2017:

"A furrowed brow is still what passes for bravery among Republican politicians these days.

They can run from reality and reporters, but they can’t hide indefinitely. As I’ve written before, the closer we get to the 2018 midterms, the faster Republicans in the House — and some of those up for reelection in the Senate — will scramble for the lifeboats. But by the time they wake up and see the looming iceberg, it may be too late to save their careers."

Ryan Lizza wrote in October 2017:

"Working for Trump means that one’s credibility is likely to be damaged, so there is a kind of moral calculation that any Trump supporter must make: Does working for him serve some higher purpose that outweighs the price of reputational loss?

There is a hierarchy of justifications for backing Trump. At the bottom are the spokespeople and purely political officials who are almost instantly discredited, because they are forced to defend the statements of a President who routinely lies and manufactures nonsensical versions of events. Sean Spicer learned this on his first day on the job, when Trump sent him into the White House briefing room to tell the press lies about Inauguration-crowd sizes. He never recovered. But there was also no higher purpose for which Spicer could claim he was serving Trump, except that he was a political-communications official, and being the White House spokesman is the top prize in that profession. Republicans in Congress are a little farther up the pyramid. ... They justify their support by noting that Trump will implement the core Republican agenda, and that alone is worth the price of a person at least some of them believe is unfit to be President.

* * *

The tougher cases are at the top of the pyramid. The government needs to be staffed, and, especially in positions of national security, it’s hard to argue against anyone taking a senior position at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the National Security Council to insure that Trump’s worst instincts are contained."

An alarming number of departures have indeed steadily come to pass. Elizabeth Shackelford, a political officer for the U.S. State Department's mission to Somalia, wrote a resignation letter on Nov. 7, 2017 to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that the damage to the U.S. reputation under the Trump administration "is visible every day in Mission Somalia, my current post, where State’s diplomatic influence, on the country and within our own interagency, is waning." Noting that other diplomats have left the agency, she asked Tillerson to "stem the bleeding" or else "follow me out the door.” Tillerson was fired the following March; there were many reports that he learned that he was fired at the same moment the rest of the nation did, that is, when Trump tweeted it.

In November 2017, Michelle Goldberg published this opinion in the New York Times:

"Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that it was a mistake to infer that what we’ve seen so far of the Trump administration will be 'as bad as it gets.' As time goes on, he wrote, 'Trump will find people who will empower him, instead of trying to contain him. Some of these will be junior officials who gain experience. Others may be opportunists who see a chance to gain high office by pledging to be more of a loyalist than the current cabinet.'"

Some of the people closest to him have been broken by their association with him. A Fox News video on Dec. 1, 2017 was headlined "Sources: Flynn broken financially and emotionally" with the description "Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about contact with Russians." By January, Paul Manafort was suing Robert Mueller.

In losing so many people, the president isolates himself. Sam Levine wrote on Jan. 3, 2018:

"Trump has now turned on two of the men who helped him win the White House — Bannon and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — and they are returning the favor.

Bannon, whom Trump called a "tough and smart new voice" four months ago, is now a man who wants to “burn down the country.” Flynn, a "terrific guy” in 2016, is now a "liar," because he is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.

Under pressure from law enforcement, the Trump administration is cracking up."

That same day, Trump issued a statement after parts of Steve Bannon's book were leaked.

Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (published Jan. 5, 2018) had several things to say about not surviving the Trump administration. Dina Powell, for example, had worked for George W. Bush and returned to work for Trump, and she also had a corporate career. Wolff notes how she worried that working for Trump could sully her: “Powell’s carefully cultivated reputation, her brand (and she was one of those people who thought intently about their personal brand), could become inextricably tied to the Trump brand. Worse, she could become part of what might easily turn into historical calamity.” Her colleagues thought her decision to work for Trump “indicated either recklessness or seriously bad judgment.” As another example, an email that circulated in early 2017, “purporting to represent the views of Gary Cohn,” said: “Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family.” And “[Sean] Spicer, hesitant to take the job, kept anxiously posing the question to colleagues in the Washington swamp: ‘If I do this, will I ever be able to work again?’ There were conflicting answers.”

A year after the inauguration, on the morning of Jan. 29, 2018, David Frum once again had dim expectations for the State of the Union to be given that night. "Look, if President Trump gets through the hour without putting a fork in somebody’s eye he will be praised as the most presidential president since the most presidential president," he said. He went on to say: "We all know what he is, we all know why he’s president, and what got him into that job. So, I think the question for all of us is how do we protect the country during the remainder of the presidency. There are no serious questions left about what kind of person he is.”

White House communications director Hope Hicks resigned on Feb. 28, 2018, having served in the role since July 2017. "Her resignation comes one day after her eight-hour testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. According to reports, Hicks admitted during her testimony that Trump sometimes required her to tell 'white lies.'"

Chris Cillizza wrote for CNN on March 19, 2018:

There's a sentence in Olivia Nuzzi's terrific profile of Hope Hicks in New York magazine that tells you absolutely everything you need to know about not only President Donald Trump but also the group of people who orbit him.

It's this one:

"No matter how dead any of the eccentrics or maniacs or divas appeared to be, how far away from the president their status as fired or resigned or never-hired-in-the-first-place should have logically rendered them, nobody was ever truly gone."

* * *

No one is ever truly "dead" to Donald Trump. The only thing he loves more than conflict between and among those who work for him is a reconciliation among those people.

Remember, always, that Trump was reality TV before reality TV. He is in the business, even now, of keeping eyeballs on him. That means drama, conflict and resolution. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

(After the House Judiciary Committee requested documents from Hope Hicks relating to her time at the White House, Trump ordered her in June 2019 not to provide the documents. Trump's order may be valid, insofar as he can claim "executive privilege." However, executive privilege would not provide an excuse for Hicks not to provide documents related to the 2016 presidential campaign.)

John Feeley, ambassador to Panama, retired in March 2018, and told The New Yorker in May that the president is "like a velociraptor. He has to be boss, and if you don’t show him deference he kills you.”

There have been at least 29 "high-profile" departures as of May 2018. CNN keeps an updated list. The Brookings Institution keeps statistics on this, and the New York Times cited Brookings when reporting on Dec. 10, 2018 that George W. Bush had 33 percent senior staff turnover after two full years in office, Obama had 24 percent, and Trump so far has 62 percent without having yet finished his second year. Those who work for this president are learning their lessons.

In June 2018, Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post that, after Kirstjen Nielsen was extensively criticized by Trump in front of other Cabinet members,

Nielsen, according to some sources, momentarily thought about resigning. Sometimes your first thought is the best one.

Though Nielsen was described as uncomfortable with the policy of family separation, she displayed her loyalty by becoming its public face. She denied it was intended as a deterrent — “Why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?” — as other senior administration officials were affirming its usefulness as a deterrent. She declared, “We will not apologize for doing our job,” just before Trump backed down and abandoned the job she was doing. A public servant who probably would not have supported child separation in another administration is now permanently identified with this act of shocking state-sponsored cruelty.

This is Trump’s leadership legacy: Because he continues to push the boundaries of decency in rhetoric and action, those around him must prove their dedication by parting with their integrity and moral judgment. The least reluctance is taken as betrayal.

Nielsen was eventually fired in April 2019, making her the 11th Trump administration official — by CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza's count — to be fired after saying "no" to Trump.

The president's choice in June 2018 for deputy chief of staff (following the departure of the predecessor, Hope Hicks) indicates a new level of loyalty and toughness that will be required, according to Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair.

Trump’s decision to tap [Bill] Shine as deputy chief of staff signals that the West Wing is entering a new era, one in which the last redoubts of internal rebellion are stamped out. “Shine is very tough,” a former Shine colleague told me. “You could pull a gun on him and he’d be like, ‘Son, put the gun away.’”

* * *

“This guy is up to eyeballs in shit,” a Republican close to the White House said. In a normal West Wing, Shine’s baggage would be disqualifying.

Shine had left Fox the previous year

"in part because of his role enabling sexual harassment (Shine denied knowledge of [Roger] Ailes’s behavior). ...Shine played a central role in facilitating Ailes's sexual and psychologically abusive relationship with former Fox executive Laurie Luhn. ... Luhn told me that Shine summoned her from Washington to meet with Ailes in New York. Shine monitored Luhn’s e-mails to make sure she wan’t talking about Ailes, Luhn told me. Shine also arranged for Luhn to see a psychiatrist after she suffered an emotional breakdown." Furthermore: "In his role at Fox, he rarely granted interviews, having imbibed Ailes’s worldview that reporters were the enemy. ... Two sources told me Shine was also aware of Ailes’s use of private investigators to harass and intimidate journalists."

(In March 2019, eight months after assuming the job, Shine stepped down from his position to join the Trump 2020 presidential campaign.)

In September 2018, Bob Woodward published Fear. He explained the process by which White House insiders burned through their political capital and edged closer to the door:

"As a general rule, in relations with Trump, the closer you were, the further away you got. You started with 100 points. You couldn’t get more. Kelly had started with 100 points in his jar, and they’d gone down. Being close to Trump, especially in the chief of staff role, meant going down in points. It meant you paid. The most important part of Trump’s world was the ring right outside of the bull’s-eye: the people that Trump thought perhaps he should have hired, or who had worked for him and he’d gotten rid of and now thought, Maybe I shouldn’t have. It was the people who were either there or should have been there, or associates or acquaintances that owed nothing to him and were around him but didn’t come in for anything. It was that outside circle that had the most power, not the people on the inside."

After the departure of two Chiefs of Staff — Reince Priebus and John F. Kelly — Trump reportedly dressed down his Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney in front of congressional leaders during a January 2019 meeting. Mulvaney had been on the job less than two weeks. Trump reportedly interrupted Mulvaney and told him, "You just fucked it all up, Mick." In June 2019, Trump criticized Mulvaney for coughing in the background of a television interview. "If you're going to cough, please leave the room," Trump requested. "You just can't, you just can't cough. Boy, oh boy. OK, do you want to do that a little differently than uhh —" (Some speculated that Mulvaney had been coughing intentionally for the president's own benefit. Trump had been bragging about his personal financial statement and how he hoped the press would get a hold of it, and Mulvaney coughed mid-sentence.)

A large percentage of positions were empty as of June 19, 2019:

While attention-seekers may congregate around any politician in power, Michelle Goldberg wrote in November 2018 that

"Trump is unique as a magnet for grifters, climbers and self-promoters, in part because decent people won’t associate with him. With the exception of national security professionals sticking around to stop Trump from blowing up the world, there are two kinds of people in the president’s orbit — the immoral and the amoral. There are sincere nativists, like Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller, and people of almost incomprehensible insincerity.

In many ways, the insincere Trumpists are the most frustrating. Because they don’t really believe in Trump’s belligerent nationalism and racist conspiracy theories, we keep expecting them to feel shame or remorse. But they’re not insincere because they believe in something better than Trumpism. Rather, they believe in very little. They are transactional in a way that makes no psychological sense to those of us who see politics as a moral drama; they might as well all be wearing jackets saying, 'I really don’t care, do u?'"

An update on Manafort: In 2019, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for his efforts to "evade taxes, deceive banks, subvert lobbying laws and obstruct justice." While the president could pardon Manafort for these federal crimes, he would not be able to pardon him for state crimes in which charges were filed separately. Manafort approached a small bank that usually serves veterans. Although not a veteran himself, Manafort got the multi-million dollar loan he wanted (causing massive losses for the bank), and the bank CEO was "appointed to an economic advisory group on Trump's campaign"; the CEO was also supposed to be made Secretary of the Army, although this was not fulfilled. The CEO has pled not guilty to federal charges of bribery. (Trump's next pick for Army Secretary turned out to have recently been in a fist fight at a horse auction, and his next pick said that "transgender is a disease" and had made intolerant comments about Muslims. Trump got his fourth choice, Mark Esper, the top lobbyist for Raytheon, a company that gets its income from defense contracts. In June 2019, Esper was promoted to Acting Secretary of Defense.

Empty positions go unfilled for a reason. Umair Haque wrote on July 2, 2019:

"It's not well understood in America — Americans are still in deep denial about it — but fascists now occupy the highest positions in the land. Part of this is the many, many top government posts that have been left unfilled. Power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny few, as a result. The Prez, his closest advisors. The Nazis did that, too. It’s a key institution of fascism to concentrate power — and starving democracy of decentralized power is how it’s done. Hence, literal fascists now do everything from “border security” to foreign policy to 'research.' That’s why investment in climate change research is being cut, while investment in camps and Gestapos is skyrocketing.

* * *

...the fascists control the state, and the state has the most money and power. They are using it now, to build the institutions of fascism at lightning pace, at record speed.

And once those institutions are built, my friends, it is very, very difficult for a society to come back."

On July 12, 2019, Alexander Acosta resigned his position as Secretary of Labor after it was revealed that he had given a secret plea deal to billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein in 2008. Epstein had faced federal charges of sex abuse against 40 teenage girls. He pled guilty to state charges, registered as a sex offender, paid settlement money, and spent a relatively small amount of time behind bars (13 months, during which he was allowed to leave six days a week to go to work), in exchange for which the federal investigation against him was ended. Acosta, who was then U.S. attorney in Miami, violated federal law by giving Epstein this plea deal without notifying Epstein's victims. The deal itself promised secrecy to Epstein while casting the underage girls as "prostitutes" rather than as sex trafficking victims. Although some of the victims sued in 2008, the issue was never resolved. Acosta's replacement will become the third Secretary of Labor during Trump's first term.

Following Acosta's resignation, the New York Times editorial board called the administration "exceptional" for "its instability, its swampiness and its turnover at the top. Keeping track of just the top-tier departures requires an advanced knowledge of spreadsheets." It said that "the many defenestrations...are occurring on almost a burning-building scale..."

See follow-up blog post on Disruptive Dissertation: On public shaming of, and service denial to, political officials


"Advice for Those Weighing Jobs in the Trump Administration: Assessing the risks of service." David Frum, The Atlantic, Jan. 28, 2017.

"A Clarifying Moment in American History." Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, Jan. 29, 2017.

"Beware Trump's Reichstag fire," Paul Waldman, The Week, Feb. 7, 2017.

Allan J. Lichtman. The Case for Impeachment. Dey Street Books, April 18, 2017. p. 21.

"John Kelly and the Dangerous Moral Calculus of Working for Trump", Ryan Lizza, New Yorker, October 20, 2017.

Ex-Bush speechwriter sets low bar for Trump’s SOTU: ‘As long as he doesn’t poke someone in the eye with a fork,’ Sarah K. Burris, Raw Story, Jan. 29, 2018.

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