Lawyers, diplomats and strategists take note: If you’re going to work for Donald Trump, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to squirm.
A pattern is emerging for administration officials that goes something like this: a slight, real or imagined, against the boss is followed by reports that the boss is displeased, which is then followed by either a public show of fealty – or a firing. Or both.
To whom does this apply, in one way or another? Only Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Sally Yates, James Comey, Michael Flynn and, most recently, Tom Price. That’s a lot of names, with very different backgrounds but oddly similarly life cycles.
This week it was Rex Tillerson’s turn.
The former ExxonMobil CEO turned Trump secretary of state wasn’t fired, but instead found himself at a hastily arranged news conference trying to reaffirm his commitment to Trump.
Tillerson’s public proclamation closely followed an NBC report that he had considered leaving the administration (which he has denied) and that he’d called his boss a “moron.” He didn’t quite deny the latter bit, instead saying he wouldn’t entertain any questions on it either.
That’s a solid deflection, but Tillerson has been in the Trump administration since February – long enough to see this kind of silliness coming. He’s seen the dismissal of a cadre of White House advisers, the firing of one Cabinet colleague and the public humiliation of another.
Trump’s top diplomat still has his job at this writing. And so does his top lawyer. But back in July it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions who was swearing loyalty to his boss at a public press conference, promising to do his best for the administration and saying he had no intention of resigning. Remember that?
Sessions’ crime, in Trump’s eyes, was acquiescing to DC’s news and political class by recusing himself from the Russia probe, paving the way for his deputy to appoint a special counsel to head it up. That investigation has only grown since then, so Trump’s anger is easy to understand.
Price, Tillerson and Sessions are Trump hires, so the drama around them is distinct from the spectacular firings of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who chose not to follow his travel ban directive, or James Comey, the non-partisan FBI director who, in so frequently – and perhaps flagrantly – exerting his independence, has drawn fire from both sides of the aisle.
White House staffers are in a different category than Cabinet secretaries and those outside the administration. For them, the cycle is greased with gossipy leaks, Trump being frustrated with this person or badgering another.
There is less space for public squirming – it’s either a swift dismissal or acceptance of resignation. That was the model for Spicer, who resigned. Bannon, Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci and Sebastian Gorka were all shoved out with varying degrees of force. Their post-White House efforts have diverged, with Bannon carrying on his nationalist fight and trying to influence the party, Spicer and Scaramucci trying to rehab their images and Priebus laying low.
Michael Flynn’s firing – the first of the Trump administration – was notable because of the soap opera that took shape around it, as chatter around his contacts with Russians grew. Interestingly though, and another indication of the odd ways of this White House, Trump, according to a Politico report, later told aides he regretted it.
Chris Cillizza wrote on CNN Friday that Trump was treating a potential war like a “reality show cliffhanger.” Something similar could be said of the drama inside his Cabinet. It was only last week that he fired his HHS secretary, Price, amid a still-bubbling scandal centered on the use of expensive private jets, billed to taxpayers, by Cabinet officials.
That drama has been moved to the back burner a week later, replaced by the next episode, the tensions surrounding his secretary of state.
The big question going forward: Who will it be next week?