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Trump’s Craven Courtiers

In the end, the only one surprised to discover a presidential shiv protruding from Rex Tillerson’s back was the man himself. He was abruptly dismissed from office on March 13, but some observers had seen it coming months ago. One could not even say of him what Shakespeare’s Malcolm says to King Duncan about the death of a treacherous vassal, “Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it.” Rex was not the most loyal of President Donald Trump’s subjects, to be sure, but he is a decent man of real accomplishment, fatally miscast as secretary of state. His end was ignominious, and his rendering of his meager accomplishments in his final press conference was marred by evident and understandable distress. It was a squalid episode.

But like Malcolm—who gains the throne over the corpses of both Duncan and the usurper Macbeth—we may note that the manner of Tillerson’s exit from Washington life is more interesting and instructive than what he did there, or the fact of his firing. Given that he never denied calling the president a moron, that he had been shut out of the most important diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and Asia, and that he had embarked on a completely unnecessary wrecking of his own department, his firing was no surprise. Yet the manner of his dismissal is important.

It puts the lie, for example, to those who say, “Don’t pay attention to the tweets.” Firing the senior member of the Cabinet is a consequential act, and it was done by tweet. Every one of those poorly spelled and erratically capitalized micro-eruptions is a presidential statement, and they lead to real outcomes. John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, told Tillerson over the previous weekend to expect a tweet, the Associated Press reported—a vaguely ominous warning more worthy of a Monty Python skit than Shakespeare. But he, too, knew and accepted that a serious action by the United States government would be handled that way.

It is noteworthy that Kelly participated in this cruel charade, failing to give the secretary a confidential heads up about his imminent demise. And so the retired general ripped another piece of soldierly honor and comradely behavior out of his skin and tossed it into the fire burning in the Oval Office. When the story of this administration is written, his really will be a morality tale worthy of, if not Shakespeare, some talented poet.

The replacement of Tillerson by CIA Director Mike Pompeo has obvious consequences: a more hawkish disposition on Iran and probably North Korea; a possible diminution of the influence of the lone pillar of integrity in the administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But it also means something much more important, which is that if you hope to influence Trump or gain access to his inner circle, you have to go full Mnuchin. The Secretary of the Treasury is shameless in his flattery of the president. One suspects that his sycophancy is matched by his cynicism. Pompeo may be more subtle, but the bonding between the president and his secretary-designate seems much more a result of his careful cultivation of Trump during his regular intelligence briefings than any record of managerial or diplomatic accomplishment. The president may like his subordinates to fight with each other—but they had better show unflagging harmony with his instincts, including his worst instincts. That is the price of admission, and these ambitious officials know and accept it.

The upshot of such an environment in the White House is that—again, with the honorable and quite possibly heroic exception of Mattis—it will become more than ever the conniving and dishonest court of an unpredictable, ill-informed, and willful monarch. The president will hear no forceful disagreements; he will not be contradicted; he will believe that his instincts and whims are invariably correct. Those around him may not be quite as honest in admitting their lack of integrity as Peter Navarro, the economic adviser who recently described his job as finding the data to support Trump’s instincts. To stay in favor, however, they will have to do as he does—and hope that the president will forget his really stupid or dangerous decisions while they undo the damage. The dangers of an executive branch run this way, with public groveling and private deceit the order of the day, are evident.

The president’s men (and few women) will also know that what happened to Tillerson could happen to them. That includes Mattis. That in turn means that when the time comes they will be all too happy to betray each other and the president himself. When the clouds finally gather around Macbeth, one of the discontented nobles observes: “Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach; Those he commands move only in command, nothing in love.” Such a moment awaits Trump, though unlike Shakespeare’s Scottish king, who is at least self-aware, he is incapable of understanding that. No band of brothers this: rather a mixture of wary scoundrels, opportunists, and very rare patriots who know that there can be no trust amongst each other or towards their leader. This too is a danger for when some serious test comes.

As one looks at those in and out of government who have either excused or attempted to ignore the president’s conduct, one notes only one figure who has not merely stood up to the president but in some measure thwarted him. It is someone who, like them, has pleased the president but unlike them has failed to be intimidated or even, in large measure, silenced by him. Indeed, it is someone who, unlike Sean Spicer or Michael Flynn or even Steven Bannon, has successfully monetized an intimate association with the president.

That is, of course, the pornographic actress and director Stormy Daniels. She has demonstrated a sense of humor, shrewd judgment, and toughness. She has used the president’s own formidable skills at playing the lowest end of the television market against him. She has not been steamrollered by Trump’s flunkies. It is a sad day for the country, however, when that sorry array of Republican elders, senior officials, hypocritical preachers, and compromised intellectuals demonstrate that they lack the gumption, or indeed the self-respect, of a trollop.

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