There’s a slow burn smoldering in Donald Trump’s White House, as, one after the other, high-profile advisors depart and cabinet secretaries increasingly give voice to their discontent. Will it turn into an inferno?
Last Friday, just a week after Steve Bannon’s exit from the administration, it was Sebastian Gorka’s turn. Over the weekend, the floods swamping Houston and Trump’s pardon of Jim Arpaio—the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona—dominated the headlines. But even up against those stories, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made news by telling Fox News Sunday that “the president speaks for himself” in the statements he’s made about the recent violence in Charlottesville.
Maybe Tillerson misspoke: perhaps he meant that Trump had been clear enough in his own words that he did not need Tillerson to reassure Fox’s Chris Wallace that the president was in full accord with “the American people’s values.” Yet given that the White House’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, had explicitly criticized Trump’s Charlottesville response in an interview published in the Financial Times just two days earlier, Tillerson’s remarks could only add to the impression that top administration officials have a new willingness to assert themselves—against the president.
When asked whether he had considered resigning over the president’s Charlottesville comments, Cohn said he had “come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position,” and while he would “not allow neo-Nazis ranting ‘Jews will not replace us’ to cause this Jew to leave his job,” he nonetheless felt “compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks.” Cohn did not accept that “both sides” were to blame for the mayhem in Charlottesville: “Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK. I believe this administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities.”
The internal damage the administration has sustained from the president’s ad hoc responses to the bloodshed in Charlottesville may outstrip the harm to Trump’s standing with the public. (Some polls actually had Trump’s numbers with his base improving after his rebarbative remarks.) There may be more to what’s going on here than just Cohn’s or Tillerson’s personal objections to the president’s language, however. The new outspokenness of top-ranking Trump officials comes just as Gen. John F. Kelly is subjecting the White House to greater discipline in his role as chief of staff. Bannon’s and Gorka’s departures seemed to be part of Kelly’s housecleaning, and the general has instituted firm rules concerning what kind of visitors and information sources are to be allowed to come before the president. Has Kelly emboldened the other “grown-ups” in the administration?
Trump has lately lost not only certain key right-wing personnel who previously had checked, or at least challenged, the more conventionally minded businessmen and military figures who now dominate the administration, but he has also lost key politically minded personnel, like Kelly’s predecessor as chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and former press secretary Sean Spicer. An administration that was previously a coalition of right-wing ideologues, Republican operatives, generals, tycoons and Wall Street financiers is today chiefly run by the financiers, tycoons and generals: by the likes of Cohn, Tillerson and Kelly. H. R. McMaster, the national security advisor, was a particular target of Bannon’s opposition—and still is, now that Bannon is back at the news outlet Breitbart. McMaster’s plans for a troop buildup in Afghanistan had been thwarted for months. Now they’re set to proceed.
Bannon and Breitbart insist that an informal coup has taken place. On leaving the administration, Bannon told the Weekly Standard, “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” But whether or not Kelly or anyone else has a master plan to change the way this administration works, Trump may have lost so many limbs of his coalition inside government that he now must depend on the few that remain. If he were to lose Cohn or McMaster or Kelly himself, there might seem to be no end to the implosion.
The generals, financiers and tycoons have won out in part because they have attracted less attention—from the media and the acutely media-conscious president—than the now-severed limbs of the administration. Sean Spicer was before the cameras every week, and the president kept score of his performance. He decided to bring in Anthony Scaramucci to “help” Spicer—but Spicer wanted nothing to do with the Mooch and so, perhaps to no one’s surprise, he resigned. (Scaramucci, of course, did not last.) Bannon annoyed Trump by becoming a focus for journalists who wished to find an ideological master strategist behind Trump’s success. Spicer, Scaramucci and Bannon all painted targets on themselves by being so prominent. The generals and Goldman Sachs men of the administration, by contrast, know how to wield power without being conspicuous.
Yet Cohn and Tillerson have been conspicuous in recent days for their unwillingness to follow the president’s line on Charlottesville. They know that Trump is in a poor position to fire anywhere else at this moment, and they feel strength in mutually reinforcing numbers: to dismiss Tillerson or Cohn would be costly, but both at once? And when they surely have the support of Kelly, McMaster, and the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner? With such a disposition of forces, Trump may indeed only “speak for himself” even within his own administration.
That is, if it still even is his administration: Trump would hardly be the first king to be deposed in everything but name by his own court. The president had a much stronger hand weeks ago—before Charlottesville—when he clearly wished to be rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Yet he could not get his way even then, and Sessions toughed out Trump’s public abuse on Twitter. To all evidence, Sessions is not an ideological ally of Cohn or Tillerson, but he has shown how a ranking administration official can weather the president’s temper.
The political realities within the administration itself might compel Donald Trump to behave more like an ordinary politician. They might just as well, however, lead to a situation in which in there are two Trump administrations—the president, and what he says, on one side; and the cabinet and most top White House personnel, and what they do, on the other. Whether that configuration could last any longer than the original Trump coalition’s eight months is an open question. Already the refurbished Trump administration faces two urgent tests: the disaster in Houston and the looming challenge of tax reform. Gary Cohn’s Financial Times interview was primarily on the latter subject. Yet his angst and dissent over Charlottesville was what attracted all the attention.
One Trump administration could not get Obamacare repeal through Congress. Two Trump administrations are apt to have an even harder time with tax reform, when they cannot speak with one voice on stories that command the headlines.
Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of the American Conservative.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a press briefing at the State Department, August 22, 2017. Reuters/Yuri Gripas