Donald Trump told us that he’d hire the best people. He didn’t mention that he’d be unable to fire them.
The president is experiencing a bout of insubordination from his top officials the likes of which we haven’t witnessed in the modern era. It’s not unusual to have powerful officials at war among themselves, or in the presidential doghouse. It’s downright bizarre to have them publicly undercut the president without fear of consequence.
The new measure of power in Washington is how far you can go criticizing the president at whose pleasure you serve. The hangers-on and junior players must do it furtively and anonymously. Only a principal like Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson or James Mattis can do it out in the open and get away with it.
First, it was chief economic adviser Cohn saying in an interview that the administration — i.e., Donald J. Trump — must do a better job denouncing hate groups. Then it was Secretary of State Tillerson suggesting in a stunning interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News that the rest of the government speaks for American values, but not necessarily the president. Finally, Secretary of Defense Mattis contradicted without a moment’s hesitation a Trump tweet saying we are done talking with North Korea.
In a more normal time, in a more normal administration, any of these would be a firing offense. Tillerson, in particular, should have been told before he was off the set of Fox News on Sunday that he was only going to be allowed to return to the seventh floor of the State Department to clean out his desk.
The fact that this hasn’t happened is an advertisement of Trump’s precarious standing, broadcast by officials he himself selected for positions of significant power and prestige. This isn’t the work of the deep state, career bureaucrats maneuvering or leaking from somewhere deep within the agencies. This is the shallow state, the very top layer of the government, operating in broad daylight.
Trump, of course, largely brought this on himself. He is reaping the rewards of his foolish public spat with Jeff Sessions and of his woeful Charlottesville remarks.
By publicly humiliating his own attorney general, Trump seemed to want to make him quit. When Sessions stayed put, Trump didn’t fire him because he didn’t want to deal with the fallout. In the implicit showdown, Sessions had won. Not only had Trump shown that he was all bark and no bite, he had demonstrated his lack of loyalty to those working for him.
So why should those working for him fear him or be loyal to him? With his loss of moral legitimacy post-Charlottesville, the president is more dependent on the people around him than they are on him.
“Globalist Gary,” as his Trumpist enemies style him, is invested with considerable market power, more than any political official besides the president himself. Tillerson is eminently replaceable, but his immediate sacking would be too destabilizing. If Mattis were to leave, it would cause a freak-out on Capitol Hill and around the world.
Mattis and Co. obviously consider themselves the president’s minders more than his underlings. But the least they could do is not air this patronizing attitude. They are impressive and accomplished people, but no one elected any of them president of the United States. They don’t do the country any favors by highlighting Trump’s weakness and by making it obvious that the American government doesn’t speak with one voice.
It should be up to chief of staff John Kelly to make it stop. This isn’t “the system working,” the cliche for how various other power centers have thwarted Trump in the early going. It’s the system gone haywire and tottering on the brink of a more serious crisis.
Nothing good can come from top officials of the U.S. government making it obvious that they believe, to borrow Tillerson’s phrase, that the president speaks for himself — and no one else.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.