Gloria Borger says administration officials like Rex Tillerson and President Trump are at odds with each other but neither side is yet willing to call it quits
In any other administration, cabinet officials who criticize the President would be forced out immediately, Borger writes
This is the world in which we now live: The secretary of state has reportedly called the President a moron and spends a day trying to clean up the mess. The secretary of defense has publicly disputed the President’s stated intent to withdraw from the Iran deal and also said we’re not done talking with North Korea, after the President tweeted that we are done talking with North Korea. The chief economic adviser went on the record to say the administration must do a better job of denouncing hate groups after Charlottesville. The chief of staff, a four-star general, has privately told people he’d never been spoken to so badly in 35 years of government service, according to the New York Times.
In another world – and in any other administration – this level of insubordination would be unacceptable, intolerable and these men would likely be gone. Remember: after Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides were quoted disparaging the administration – including the President – in 2010, no-drama Obama had him gone within a few days.
Sure, President Trump fired HHS Secretary Tom Price for his excessive use of private planes, because it made Trump look bad. And, yes, the White House has had a revolving door of senior aides for an assortment of reasons. It seems that daily life with Donald Trump is not a bowl of cherries.
But what now?
If Donald Trump were simply running the Trump organization, these employees would be gone. They’d either quit after being undermined by the boss, or the boss would fire them for their unacceptable behavior. In an instant.
But in this White House, they’re all boxed in. They are, for the moment, stuck in an awkward mutual embrace. It’s a series of uneasy alliances held together with chicken wire – for purposes of appearance, for promises of achievement and, above all else, perhaps out of a sense of patriotism.
After the dust-up with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, uninhibited due to his decision not to run for re-election, had a moment of clear candor. “I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos,” he said. There you have it on C-SPAN, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee saying it out loud: these people are there in the White House to protect us. He did not need to say from whom.
At this point, it may have dawned on the President that he needs these cabinet members and key advisers more than they need him. It no doubt grates on the man most famous for instant TV firings that, if he were to do that now, he would be the one to send his administration into crisis.
There was a time – oh, two months ago – that Trump seemed to enjoy publicly gunning for his own attorney general Jeff Sessions. Trump is still angry at Sessions for recusing himself on the Russia investigation – and doing it without telling him first – but Sessions has not budged. And Trump is living with it because, well, he has no choice.
Sure, Tillerson is the most easily replaceable target right now. Chances are they’ll cut a deal (if they haven’t already) to allow the secretary to resign after a year on the job. It’s been an uneasy relationship between these two CEOs, and no one will be surprised when it ends. Ditto for Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, who has made it clear he is staying to reshape the tax code of the biggest economy in the world. Or to become chairman of the Fed, which looks less and less likely.
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But the generals are different. When they disagree with the President publicly, it’s worrisome. Not because they are wrong, but because they put themselves in jeopardy each time they do it. And should one general leave, we will know it’s because he believes the nature of his relationship with the commander in chief has deteriorated to the point where he can no longer be effective.
Patriotism is a very good reason to serve. But is it reason enough to stay when your influence is gone?