Shortly after firing FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump brought then-acting Director Andrew McCabe to the White House for a meeting. He had a very important question for McCabe: Who did you vote for in the 2016 election?
That episode, recounted by The Washington Post in a story published Tuesday night, is just so damn telling about how Trump views the government – and law enforcement in particular.
The most important thing to him is loyalty to him. Not loyalty to the Constitution. Or the law. Loyalty to him.
Trump views absolutely everything through this loyalty lens – how he feels about you depends entirely on how loyal he believes you to be to him. This has been proven time and again in his interactions with everyone from Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon to Comey.
Which is why Trump needed to know where McCabe stood on him before he could properly evaluate his future job prospects. According to the Post, Trump also grilled McCabe on donations his wife, who was a candidate for state Senate, accepted from a political group affiliated with then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime ally of the Clintons.
It’s also why Trump told Comey, during a meeting at the White House in January 2017, that “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Comey, according to the written testimony of the episode he submitted to Congress, recalls that he “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.”
Trump’s obsessive need for loyalty among those who work for him can be directly traced back to his years as a businessman in the private sector and his ongoing misunderstanding of how serving as president is different than being a successful person in the private sector.
In his past life, everyone in his company worked for him. They could be hired and fired by him if he didn’t think they were doing a good enough job representing his interests. There was only one goal: To advance the Trump brand and make as much money as humanly possible.
The government is not a for-profit entity. Yes, the President of the United States is, technically, the head of the federal bureaucracy, but the loyalty of the employees of the government is, ultimately, to the people, and, in the broadest way, to the Constitution of the United States.
Federal workers actually take an oath. The words “President” and “Trump” are not mentioned. The pledge is to uphold and defend the Constitution.
If you work for the FBI – as McCabe and Comey did for a very long time – your loyalty is to the law first, second and last. That’s how it should be, at least. And it’s why both men, reportedly, were taken aback by Trump’s loyalty pledge.
Attempts by Trump allies to downplay the oddness of the President’s requests to McCabe and Comey are close to laughable. “I think it’s just a conversation,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told CNN’s “New Day.” “I don’t think it intends, you know, all of these terrible things that people are trying to put forward.”
Think of it this way: Your new boss calls you into his office. He immediately asks you if he can depend on you, if you are someone who is going to have his back. Would you think that was simply “a conversation”? Or would you think your boss wanted to make clear that his expectation was that he had your loyalty or else?
Right. Context matters. Which is why McDaniel’s follow-up quote – “I ask people who they vote for sometimes. I think it is just trying to get to know somebody.” – makes no sense. These loyalty pledges were in the context of what effectively was a job interview. Not a casual conversation.
Trump, who has never spent any time in government or law enforcement prior to winning the White House, seems to not understand the boundaries that past presidents have respected between the executive and some of the critical agencies – like the FBI – within the government.
Whether he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about those boundaries is largely meaningless since it produces the same result: A President of the United States who thinks that everyone in the federal bureaucracy must be loyal to him over being loyal to anything (and everything) else.
That is abnormal. Hugely so.