Searching for conscience in Trump’s Cabinet

Matt Bai
President Trump during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Monday. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Every week, it seems, I wake up thinking I’m going to write about something else — maybe Dennis Rodman’s latest mission to North Korea, or the melting Antarctic ice shelf. The Yankees have a kid whose home runs travel roughly the same trajectory as Sputnik — I could talk about that all day.

But then the president does something — or contemplates doing something — that’s just too reckless to ignore. Donald Trump is the sinkhole beneath our national dialogue, sucking up everything but the sky.

This week started with a report that Trump was now furious at the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, and was considering a move to get him fired — a report Trump himself did nothing to refute, and that the White House belatedly half-denied.

I guess Mueller forgot to stop by the Cabinet meeting Monday and publicly declare to the president how profoundly blessed and honored he was to have the privilege of investigating corruption and treason among some of Trump’s top campaign advisers.

If you didn’t watch the opening of the president’s first full Cabinet meeting the other day, then you should, because it really was something.

Normally, Cabinet meetings start with some informal banter and maybe a few words from the president, while reporters and photographers record the moment for history. Trump started his meeting with a recitation of his accomplishments, which included a claim that he had “passed more legislation” and “done more things” than almost any president in history, with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt.

Since Trump has passed exactly no significant legislation to this point, we can read this only one of two ways: Either the 71-year-old Trump lives in Faraway Land and all this talk about the 25th Amendment isn’t as wishful as it seems, or he knows the cable networks would carry him live even if he were in a coma, and he’s deliberately laying out a completely fabricated reality for voters who distrust the media or don’t have time to consume it.

I’m going with that last one.

But then Trump opened the floor to the members of his Cabinet, who for roughly 10 minutes went around the room praising and thanking the president, while he beamed and nodded like a dog owner watching his Yorkie show off at obedience school.

Reince Priebus, the president’s chief of staff, thanked him for “the opportunity and blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda,” which he must be keeping in a secret safe somewhere, waiting for the perfect moment to reveal it.

The vice president thanked Trump for “the greatest privilege of my life.” The attorney general, who was about to testify before a Senate committee about the firing of the FBI director, assured Trump his message was getting a “fabulous response” from real Americans, about 35 percent of whom approve of the job he’s doing.

On social media, critics were quick to compare this spectacle to something you might see in North Korea. Except that in North Korea, aides to the Dear Leader understand that if they don’t demonstrate their allegiance, they could be dropped into a pit full of dogs, or get doused in a lethal virus.

Here the worst that can happen is you might get bounced onto K Street, where you’ll earn more at some 20-hour-a-week lobbying job than the average American will see in a couple of lifetimes.

Which returns me, again, to the central mystery of Trump’s enablers in Washington. When does integrity kick in?

About a month ago, after James Comey was fired, I wrote a column about Trump’s West Wing advisers, suggesting that they would do themselves and the country a favor if they walked away from his family-run enterprise. But you know, these were political aides, people who worked their whole lives for a West Wing desk and who still believe the president can be redirected.

The Cabinet is a different deal altogether. These are folks who, like them or not, have accomplished enough to feel protective of their own legacies. Sitting around that table were three former governors, the co-founder of the professional wrestling empire, a couple of billionaires, a few renowned doctors, a veteran of two previous Cabinets, and a Wall Street financier turned movie producer, among others.

In the center chair, Trump was flanked, on one side, by a decorated and highly regarded general (one of three in the Cabinet), and, on the other, by the former chairman of ExxonMobil. From the looks on their faces, both of them would have been grateful had a United flight attendant barged in and dragged them from their seats.

Rex Tillerson is, to me, a particularly confounding figure. The secretary of state seems like a serious man nearing the end of a consequential career, accomplished in industry and worth a fortune. He is doing this, one presumes, because he holds some very American notion about the obligation to serve, which I admire.

But by now it must be clear to a guy as smart as Tillerson that he is serving some other, baser purpose. It doesn’t take Carl Jung to see that Trump likes to collect elite pedigrees and establishment brands mostly so he can lord it over them. Having spent much of his life suffering the condescension of Manhattan’s financial and political aristocracy, Trump enjoys turning the tables.

After recruiting Tillerson from his captaincy in corporate America, Trump promptly vetoed his choice for a deputy at the State Department and ordered him to make draconian cuts. He’s undermined his top diplomat’s policy pronouncements with abrupt reversals.

I get that Tillerson and some of his colleagues in the Cabinet might actually feel duty-bound to moderate the impulses of a rash and inexperienced president. I suppose that when you’ve been persistent and successful for so long, admitting futility after such a short time would feel like defeat.

But how long do you endure this kind of humiliation? Tillerson’s comment at the Cabinet meeting was cautious by comparison to others: “Thank you for the honor to serve the country. It’s a great privilege you’ve given me.”

What he should have said to himself immediately after walking out of the White House was: “I know who I am and what I’ve proven, and I’m never sitting through that kind of creepy show again.”

Which leads me back to Mueller. You would hope any effort to remove Mueller at this point would lead to all-out insurrection both in Congress and in the Cabinet, where even the most pliable servants would have to recognize that history was forcing them to choose between conscience and capitulation.

But I don’t think Trump is actually planning to do that; even he must have seen a TV show about Watergate at some point. No, I think the sudden rumblings from the right about Mueller’s integrity are part of a loosely concerted attempt to discredit whatever the special counsel might ultimately conclude.

Trump doesn’t have to get Mueller fired to inoculate himself and his campaign against the investigation. He simply has to resort to the same cynical tactic that’s on display when he trumpets his nonexistent legislative record: plant a counterfactual narrative and hope that the average voter — or at least the average Trump voter — will dismiss the truth as more “fake news.”

And that by itself ought to be enough to thoroughly shake a titan like Tillerson, or an accomplished politician like Rick Perry or Nikki Haley, or a patriot like James Mattis. How do you sit there heaping praise on the president while he sets out to erode the vital institutions of government and media?

If you’re ambivalent about respecting the process, at least respect yourself.

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