On Thursday, Madeleine Westerhout, personal assistant to the President of the United States, was forced to resign in the wake of the revelation that she had talked about Donald Trump’s family in an off-the-record dinner with reporters.
Westerhout had worked hand-in-glove with Trump – her office was right outside the Oval – since shortly after he was elected President, making her one of a handful of aides who had served under Trump for the duration of his term.
And now, she is out. Because, reportedly, a journalist at the dinner broke the “off the record” terms and told the White House what Westerhout had said about the first family. (CNN was not among the news organizations represented at the dinner.)
Now, we don’t know what exactly Westerhout said – and we may never know – only that she shared what one person described as “intimate” information about the family, which, candidly, could mean almost anything. (One man’s “intimate” detail is another man’s mundane fact.)
But her removal is a reminder that if you stay in Trump’s orbit long enough, he will turn on you. He demands and expects total and complete fealty from those who work for him but doesn’t even pretend it’s a two-way street. You will give him your loyalty and life; he will not reciprocate. Them’s the rules.
Take Westerhout. There’s no doubt that talking about Trump’s family – in any terms – is the sort of thing that is always going to get you into trouble with the boss. But she was talking in a format that, according to CNN’s White House team, is both a) a regular occurrence during presidential trips and b) established as an off-the-record (meaning that there is no talking about the nature of the conversation or any details of it) event.
While Westerhout should know better than assuming that just because something is “off the record” means it will never leak, she also almost certainly earned, through her years of service to Trump, a second chance. (Nota bene: There are things she might have told reporters – although I can’t really imagine what – that are so beyond the pale that she had to go no matter what.)
But that’s not how Trump works. There are no second chances. Total loyalty is expected. Anything short of it is punished. Severely. No exceptions – unless you’re family.
While Trump’s critics like to compare his management style to an organized crime organization, the parallel that feels most apt to me is to HBO’s hit show “Succession,” which documents the trials and travails of Logan Roy, the head of a massive media company, and his four children.
Logan Roy is domineering, bullying and entirely convinced he knows best in every situation. (Sound like anyone else you know?) He takes everything about his company – Waystar Royco – personally. The only people who have been able to survive around him for any period of time are those willing to dedicate everything to him, and to follow his at-times wild orders without question.
In the most recent episode of the show, Logan is trying to sniff out a leak in his inner circle. He rages at the “pygmies” who surround him. He humiliates three top executives to prove his dominance. And everyone is expected to take it because, well, he is Logan Roy and they aren’t. (Roy – and his kids – are supposedly loosely modeled on Rupert Murdoch and his family.)
The more I watch Logan Roy, the more he reminds me of Trump – and vice versa. The obsession with loyalty, the lack of it he is willing to give. The view of people as pawns to be played for his gain no matter the real-world consequences. And the unstinting belief that whatever he does is the right thing because he is doing it.
The firing – uh, resignation – of Westerhout could easily have been an episode of this season of “Succession.” Which, I suppose, makes sense given that Trump views every day of his presidency as the next episode of a hit reality TV show.