Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
With critics of chief of staff John Kelly calling for his resignation after he supported an accused wife beater who recently resigned from the White House staff, it’s time to ask a simple question: How many appalling characters must be wrung out of the West Wing before we recognize that the problem is the man at the top, who sets the tone for the workplace culture?
Kelly’s stubborn defense of Robert Porter, who faces abuse accusations from three women, including a former wife who shared a photograph of her bruised face with the media, is consistent with President Trump’s lifelong penchant for doubling down on outrageous statements. Decades of this practice trained many people to accept “Trump being Trump,” which meant they discounted his racist, sexist comments and tweets. More importantly, the more Trump got away with his outrageous behavior, the more he came to regard this trait as something positive – and he brought into his inner circle men with the same bully-boy ways.
Hopes that Kelly might be a stable influence on the President faded as he got in on an unseemly spat between Trump and a war widow who felt the President disrespected her. More recently, Kelly exposed himself as truly Trumpian by saying “some would say” immigrants who failed to enroll in DACA were “too lazy to get off their asses.” The very next day Kelly offered presidential-grade bluster in response to news that Robert Porter, the man who controls the flow of information in the Oval office, couldn’t pass an FBI background check because of accusations of abuse from three women, two of whom are his former wives. He said in a statement that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
In staffing his campaign for president and later his administration, Trump either attracted or sought out men with attitudes similar to his own. In this crowd it was okay to be overly aggressive, or burdened with a sketchy background, just as long as you were truly useful to the President and didn’t upstage him. Consider this list:
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, was the embodiment of obnoxious pugnacity and ended up on video grabbing a female reporter at an event, forcibly preventing her from asking Trump a question. Although battery charges were dropped, proof of the altercation remains available online. Days later, Lewandowski grabbed a protester at a Trump rally. In both cases, the candidate defended his man, but when he became too much of a distraction, he was let go.
Paul Manafort, who replaced Lewandowski as campaign manager, came to the Trump campaign from the dark corners of international political consulting, where his clients included a rogue’s gallery that should have disqualified him from any presidential hopeful’s campaign. Add his connections to Russian oligarchs, and Manafort was toxic. But he was also a guy willing to do what others would not, and this is a trait Trump displays himself. So it was that Manafort became a Trump insider until, of course, he was ousted – and later indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the investigation into Russia’s election meddling.
Steve Bannon followed Manafort into Trump’s campaign and then the White House, despite, or rather because of, his reputation as a tough-guy extremist. In his prior job as head of the Breitbart news organization, he published virulent anti-Muslim and anti-woman pieces, and welcomed so-called alt-right provocateurs who exhibit a range of hateful attitudes. Bannon’s personal problems included sexist comments in the workplace and his ex-wife’s accusations of assault (charges were later dismissed). Nevertheless, Trump drew Bannon close and kept him close until he started to upstage him in press interviews. Only then was he forced out.
Michael Flynn, like Gen. Kelly, was a military man, and was every bit the tough guy in the campaign as he chanted “lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton. This display, which disrespected the rank Flynn had achieved in the Army and showed terrible judgment to boot, would be enough to disqualify him from serving some presidents. In Trump’s case, it likely cemented Flynn’s standing. He served as White House national security adviser for less than a month. He now stands convicted of lying to the FBI and is cooperating with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Sebastian Gorka, a campaign adviser who followed Trump to the White House, came with questionable expertise and links to ultra-nationalists. He has a longstanding warrant for his arrest issued by authorities in his native Hungary related to an incident involving a firearm. In 2016 he was stopped at an airport, where he tried to enter carrying a gun. He has noted that his “everyday carry” includes a pistol, a knife, and a tourniquet. Trump ignored these obvious signs of trouble as he relied on Gorka to berate his critics. Then he seemed to run afoul of a new chief of staff – John Kelly – and left his White House post.
Kelly, a retired marine general, was supposed to be the man who would calm Trump’s White House, and Gorka’s departure suggested he was up to the task. The President was obviously comfortable with Kelly because he was a military man (Trump famously loves generals) with a tough-guy demeanor, and because he was, like Trump, a hawk on immigration.
And now, Robert Porter. As sensible people responded with alarm to the news that the White House employed Porter even after red flags were raised about his past, Kelly defended him as “a man of true integrity and honor.” Kelly’s statement, and reports that he encouraged Porter to stay on the job, reveal the inclinations of a man ruled by attitude, not sober reflection. These actions also threatened Kelly’s own reputation.
Whether Kelly stays or goes, he is now yet another example of the toxic workplace culture created by Donald Trump, who clearly brought into his administration the kinds of men who make him feel at ease. Trump has a lifelong record of bullying, aggression, lying, and extremism. (He is, remember, the man who joked about sexually assaulting women on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.) The six men noted above, and a host of other figures in the administration, have come out of the Trump mold and proven incapable of better.