Working for Trump is an embarrassment

Jon Huntsman chosen as US Ambassador to Russia
Jon Huntsman chosen as US Ambassador to Russia

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Story highlights

  • This week, Jon Huntsman accepted Donald Trump's offer to serve as ambassador to Russia
  • Michael D'Antonio: Like Spicer and Tillerson before him, Huntsman will learn working for Trump comes with reputational risk

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)On Wednesday, former Governor Jon Huntsman accepted President Donald Trump's offer to serve as US ambassador to Russia. Having previously served as an ambassador to China, Huntsman may feel prepared for the task at hand. But chances are he will become the latest Trump employee to face professional embarrassment in the days and weeks to come.

Just look at Sean Spicer squirm and wiggle away from questions about President Trump's outrageous claims, something the White House spokesman has been required to do many times since Inauguration Day. Once a highly-regarded professional, Spicer has become Exhibit A in a growing body of evidence that suggests that serious people with reputations they value serve the President at their own peril.
    Michael D'Antonio
    In his previous job, as communications director of the Republican National Committee, Spicer was respected as a fierce partisan who was, nevertheless, trustworthy. However, before he even settled into his new West Wing job, the press secretary was forced to defend, despite photographic evidence, Trump's claim that his inauguration was attended by enormous crowds.
    Less than one week into his tenure, Spicer became the butt of endless jokes and his credibility was so damaged that speculation over his dismissal swirled in the news media. In California, former gubernatorial press secretaries offered both pity and advice for the man: "There is no fighting chance now that there could be a trust relationship (between Spicer and the press), because it's been so abused," said Kevin Eckery, press secretary to former GOP Governor Pete Wilson.
    Since then, Spicer has affirmed many more falsehoods, saying that an order that Trump called a "ban" on Muslim immigrants was not a ban, that no one in the Trump campaign had contact with Russian officials and, most recently, that a Fox News reporter's phone had been tapped while Obama was in office.
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    White House: Don't use the word 'ban'

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    Because his stock in trade is credibility, Spicer took a great risk when he agreed to be chief spokesman for a president with such a loose relationship with facts. (Of 372 Trump statements checked by the authoritative Politifact.com, just 15 have been rated as fully "true.") And Spicer is not the only one who has experienced humiliation in Trump's administration.
    The men appointed to lead various intelligence agencies assumed office knowing that the new President had antagonized the rank-and-file for months, questioning the widely-affirmed conclusion that Russia had tried to sway the 2016 election in Trump's favor. Trump continued to undermine the intelligence community even after his inauguration. As morale plummeted, leaks to the press revealed that intelligence professionals were uneasy with Trump's leadership. Next came the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to step down because he lied about his own contacts with Russia's ambassador in Washington.
    The Flynn debacle raises serious questions about the president's judgement as a team-builder. Notoriously hot-headed, Flynn was reportedly pushed out of the same job that he held under Obama because he was abrasive and worked against the President's policy.
    Flynn won Trump's confidence when he became an early supporter in the campaign. At the Republican National Convention, he cried "Damn right" as people chanted "Lock her up!" In appointing Flynn, Trump signaled that personal loyalty mattered more than temperament and judgment.
    Anyone with any doubts about the challenge of working for Trump need only consider that the President's top pick to replace Flynn, Vice Admiral Robert Harward, turned him down. Harward's official reason -- that he couldn't devote his full attention to the job -- sounded much like the excuse of "I'm resigning to spend more time with my family." According to The New York Times, Harward's real reason was Trump's "unpredictable style and the level of chaos that has engulfed his White House."
    The mounting evidence of an administration in chaos includes the withdrawal of the men appointed to lead the Army, the Navy and the Department of Labor. As they stepped away from prestigious appointments, these nominees seemed, on one level, to have failed. However, it is also true that they may have escaped something worse.
    Consider the experience of Trump's pick for Secretary of State, the former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson. Soon after he took the job, Tillerson was publicly humiliated when Trump refused to let him pick Elliott Abrams to be his deputy. Trump also undercut the secretary when he failed to consult him on changing longstanding American policy in favor of Palestinian statehood.
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    Politician: Criticize Trump and you're out

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    Although the position of secretary of state is widely considered the most prestigious in any cabinet, Tillerson has been upstaged by Trump's 36-year-old son-in-law Jared Kushner and by Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon. Trump also took the highly unusual step of adding Bannon to the principals group of the National Security Council, a position never previously granted a chief White House political aide.
    Like Spicer, Tillerson is on the losing side of a bargain he made with a leader he may not understand. Here it helps to become familiar with the work of Northwestern University psychologist Dan P. McAdams, who has studied the personalities of presidents including Trump, whom he views an as extreme example of the dominance style deployed by alpha chimpanzees. Leadership by dominance is more primal than the other main kind of leadership, which is based on expertise.
    Although previous Presidents have displayed a mix of these two styles, Trump is almost all about dominance. It's likely that the people who declined his job offers sensed the President's lack of respect for their expertise and the conditional quality of his support. Extremely dominant leaders consider loyalty a one-way street and will abandon partners in favor of a better deal. Witness the fate of Michael Flynn.
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    The dominance mode explains Trump's bluster, bullying and tendency to dismiss people who have genuine experience. As McAdams told me this week, Trump "has no respect for, or interest in, expertise of any kind, writing it off as weakness and the providence of elites." This is the mindset that led Trump to put some agencies -- like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy and the Department of Education -- under the control of people who either knew little of what these organizations did or, in some cases, are hostile to their missions.
    Among Trump's first appointees, Spicer may have possessed the greatest relevant expertise combined with the smallest measure of dominance behavior. To witness his struggle is to witness the dynamic that could cause chaos throughout the administration. Modern institutions, including the White House, require expertise.
    And in chimpanzee colonies, which McAdams notes "do not have democratic institutions," the dominance mode comes with guaranteed chaos. "Things always end badly for the alpha chimp," he said, who torments his underlings until the moment he is overthrown.