Gloria Borger: It has not escaped other Cabinet members that what happened to Sessions could happen to them.
The President will stop at nothing to get loyalty, even if it means rubbing up against the rule of law, she writes
Editor’s Note: Gloria Borger is CNN’s chief political analyst, appearing regularly on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper’s AC360 and across the network’s primetime programs. Follow her on Twitter @GloriaBorger. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Just imagine you are a key member of the President’s cabinet. Maybe you were completely loyal to him during the campaign; maybe you came around late in the game. Or maybe you were apolitical. Whatever your history, you’re in the thick of it now. And you’re in the job to serve the country.
But as you watch the President publicly troll, trash and torment Attorney General Jeff Sessions every day – the man who was the first senator to endorse him, who never abandoned his candidate (even in the darkest days of the Access Hollywood tape), who happily gave up a 20-year Senate career to serve – you have to understand: this could happen to you.
And that isn’t going to change.
The incoming communications chief Anthony Scaramucci put it this way: “The President wants his Cabinet secretaries to have his back.” And a friend of the President makes it even more clear. “This is the way the President likes it. Nobody has command and control except him.”
In the President’s mind, this source explains, Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation was an act of personal treason, a “tremendous error of character and judgment. He sees it as too weak,” a sign that he gave in to conventional thinking and, in the process, legitimized the Russia probe. What’s more, adds this source, the President insists on being the ultimate decider, always. “He gets so frustrated when people don’t do what he tells them to do, whether he’s right or wrong.” That’s apparently the Trump definition of loyalty.
Even, it seems, if it rubs right up against the rule of law.
As cabinet members watch Sessions twist – and wonder, along with the rest of us, how long he can or should take this barrage – it’s not as if they haven’t had problems of their own with this administration. Remember that embarrassing dog and pony show in mid-June, in which cabinet members went around the table and delivered high praise to their fearless leader? Sessions, who was already in Trump’s doghouse, said this to the President then: “It’s an honor to be able to serve you in that regard and to send the exact right message, and the response is fabulous around the country.”
Well, probably not a good idea to try that theater again.
One Republican source who has spoken with multiple cabinet members, says it has not escaped them that what happened to Sessions could happen to them.
They’re not revolting – and they are even loathe to talk about this, on or off the record – nor are they going to up and quit because a member of the club is being mistreated. But as a source close to one cabinet secretary puts it, some are “perturbed, to put it mildly.” And why wouldn’t they be? “He’s neutralized the cabinet,” says another source with knowledge of the situation. “Most are under no illusion that they can only do exactly what the President wants them to do.”
Sure, cabinets ordinarily serve their Presidents, and at the will of the President. However, they are not ordinarily required to pay homage on every front or perpetually fear for their jobs. Let’s just say this might send a chill through the next cabinet session in the Roosevelt room.
Ironically, Sessions hasn’t deviated from the administration’s agenda; in fact, he’s arguably Trump’s biggest cheerleader – on immigration, on taking a hard line on criminal justice and on the travel ban. Meantime, other cabinet members’ complaints have been pretty well documented.
As CNN Chief National Correspondent John King first reported, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson considered the public rebuke of Sessions unprofessional. What’s more, he has felt the encroachment of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on his turf, and been undercut by the White House in the dispute between Qatar and its Gulf State neighbors. Not to mention his widely reported blowup at the White House for slow staffing approvals – especially when his suggested hires were not deemed sufficiently loyal to Donald Trump, all of which has prompted speculation that he might make an early exit. On Wednesday, Tillerson said, “I’m not going anywhere.”
One outsider who speaks with him – and is a fan – calls the former Exxon CEO “a class act who has run something bigger than he’s running now.” He also says “he’s too smart to do something abrupt.” Although this source added, “his best day was the day he got nominated.” Ouch.
And while National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is not a member of the cabinet, CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto reports that he is at odds with President Trump on many national security issues, according to a congressional source. Compounding the situation is that McMaster is very much used to speaking truth to power – a quality that can be problematic in this White House.
Instead, the one-way Trumpian notion of loyalty – which includes purging any former anti-Trumpers from government – remains at center stage. Another example: one source with knowledge says that a top staffer for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was called by the White House to say he was fired (he had been a Jeb Bush supporter). A frustrated DeVos called the White House to protest, and then suggested the President call her to discuss. The call never came and the staffer remains on the job. (CNN made several attempts to contact the Department and the Secretary’s office, and received no response.)
Small wonder that Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, has decided to pursue direct access to the President to avoid intramural instructions, debates and squabbles. Good idea.
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By the way, it didn’t start out this way. Remember those confirmation hearings when cabinet secretaries contradicted candidate Trump on issue after issue – from NATO, to torture, to immediately building a wall? And the President chirped in a tweet: “…I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine.”
That was then. But their thoughts were about policy – not about Trump’s personal stake in any Russia investigation. So it’s different now. Now it’s about loyalty to a President who feels under attack every day. It’s about a President who demands personal fealty as he soldiers on. “He (the President) is really looking at this saying he’s leading a revolution,” says a source who speaks with the President. “And you may have to burn all the ships as you cross the sea.”