The Hidden Logic of Trump’s Staff Exodus

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Rex, we hardly knew ye.
Rex, we hardly knew ye. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the recent wave of departures from the Trump administration, Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent victory in the Pennsylvania special election, and the Stormy Daniels scandal.

The exodus from the Trump administration continues this week with Rex Tillerson at the State Department, followed out the door by the department spokesperson who described the White House’s actions a little too bluntly, and with more moves expected. What is going on here?

Trump’s top appointees, exemplified by the Cabinet, are in their jobs for only three reasons: to demolish the federal government; to spend taxpayers’ money on luxury travel and office refurbishing; and to toady to the president in public and obey his policy whims in private. Tillerson is out because he succeeded in only the first of these by decimating the State Department. His successor, Mike Pompeo, will not make Tillerson’s mistake. He’s the very model of a heel-clicking Vichy Republican.

The latest scuttlebutt has Rick Perry, the Energy secretary who took the job not knowing what the Department of Energy does, moving to Veterans’ Affairs. As others inevitably follow Tillerson out the door — Jeff Sessions, H.R. McMaster, et al. — we’ll increasingly see successors like Pompeo, picked from within the current ranks of administration flunkies.

Respectable new recruits are hard to find now that it’s no longer a matter of debate that to work for Trump is to destroy one’s reputation. Gary Cohn, the departing economic adviser, used to be known as a Goldman Sachs super trader; now he’s known as the guy who was so determined to get a tax cut that he refused to resign after his boss gave a free pass to anti-Semitic and racist neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Tillerson was known as the star CEO of Exxon; now he’s become a national punch line whose repeated public humiliations culminated with his being fired by tweet.

Remember all that talk that Trump would be constrained by the “grown-ups” in the White House? With the exception of Jim Mattis, the Defense secretary, they’ve all either departed or surrendered their manhood to Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia (John Kelly). We now know definitively that Trump doesn’t want adults in the room; he wants malleable dolts (Ben Carson, Steve Mnuchin, Betsy DeVos) who are happy to join him in his Oval Office playpen, where he can make all the rules and hoard the toys.

Too many rats departing the sinking ship, too little time to dwell on them all. My favorite of the recent crop is Trump’s personal assistant, Johnny McEntee, who was hustled out of the White House this week when it was discovered that he was being investigated for online gambling and tax evasion. Hardly was he out the door when he found a safe landing in a senior position in the 2020 reelection campaign. Say what you will about the chaotic comings and goings in Trumpworld, but Paul Manafort’s sleazy résumé even now remains its ethical gold standard.

Though uncounted absentee ballots have an outside chance of shifting the math, the Democrat Conor Lamb is apparently squeaking out a victory in Pennsylvania’s special election, winning a House seat in a district Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016. How will this shake up each party’s plans for the midterms this November?

The Republicans are stuck with only one plan for November: Donald Trump. They can run, but they can’t hide from the president they have embraced unequivocally since his inauguration. The Democrats’ plans? The very question is an oxymoron. They have many ways to try to commit self-sabotage between now and Election Day, and will surely indulge in more than a few during the ideological battles of primary season.

But even so, the result in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, in the heart of what the GOP candidate Rick Saccone himself called “Trump country,” is momentous for the Democrats, a further demonstration that they will have to work extra hard to claw defeat from the jaws of victory this year. Saccone had everything going for him — not just an expanding economy, a supposedly crowd-pleasing tax cut, and the district’s solid GOP history. (Some years, the Democrats haven’t even bothered to field a House candidate in the 18th.) Conservative groups and PACs spent $10.7 million on Saccone’s race, more than five times Lamb’s bankroll. Trump announced his steel and aluminum tariffs in the campaign’s final days, the most microtargeted pander to Rust Belt voters imaginable. Trump visited Pennsylvania twice to campaign for Saccone, culminating in last Saturday’s rally in which he served up the red meat that usually revs up his base, from racism (calling the Congresswoman Maxine Waters a “low IQ individual”) to press-bashing (calling NBC’s Chuck Todd a “son of a bitch”). Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Mike Pence campaigned, too. All to no avail.

Trump apologists will argue that Saccone was too conventional a Republican to wear a MAGA hat convincingly. But Saccone had enthusiastically embraced Trump and Trumpism. The fact is that since Trump became president, his all-in endorsements of GOP candidates have failed to win victories whether the candidate is a standard-issue conservative in a purplish state (Ed Gillespie, in the Virginia gubernatorial race) or an uninhibited Trumpian (the accused child molester Roy Moore in Alabama) in a deep-red state. And Trump has made it known that he loves campaigning so much — certainly far more than his actual job — that he wants to book many more of his rambling, crowd-pleasing rallies in the months to come. Who is going to say no to him? Meanwhile, the Democrats need 24 seats to take the House in November, and according to the Washington Post, they have an even better shot at flipping 114 other House seats than they did the Pennsylvania 18th. (And Democrats should even do better in Pennsylvania in the fall, given that the 18th and other gerrymandered districts are being redrawn in the aftermath of a State Supreme Court ruling.)

Some Democrats will undoubtedly view Lamb’s ideological profile as a relatively conservative Democrat as a mandate for the party to now tilt right. But as an analysis of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study of the last national election has shown, the 9 percent of 2012 Obama voters who switched to Trump in 2016 are more conservative than the other 90 percent of Obama voters as a whole; they will remain tougher pickups for Democrats no matter how much its strategists try to concoct campaign strategies from a deep reading of Hillbilly Elegy. A more likely source of a Democratic revival are the 10 percent of 2012 Obama voters who either stayed home (7 percent) or voted for a third-party candidate (3 percent) in 2016. Trump has given many of them — a disproportionate number of them either young or black — a reason to be fired up and ready to go even without Obama on the ballot.

Bringing her affair with Trump into public view with a lawsuit and a not-yet-aired interview with 60 Minutes, Stormy Daniels has exposed Trump’s marital infidelity (and the possible existence of other “hush agreements”), not to mention potential violations of federal campaign law and the president’s vulnerability to extortion. Is this a scandal that could end his presidency?

Daniels is fascinating, a sleeper cell who is unlikely to end this presidency but could yet hasten its demise.

The fact that Trump had an affair with a porn star soon after he married his current wife and fathered his youngest son will not drive away his base. Voters who were onboard for Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, in which he essentially confirmed the charges of the multiple women accusing him of sexual assault, are on for this. The moral charlatans who speak for Evangelical Christians, from Tony Perkins to Franklin Graham, would likely rationalize Trump’s behavior even if sex tapes do surface from Tahoe or Moscow.

But Daniels has an asset that Trump may well fear: She seems to have the talent to challenge him in the arena he cares about most — entertainment. I am not talking about her cinematic canon, which I have not seen, but about her gumption, wit, and shamelessness. Her rapid-fire Twitter feed, in which she dispatches Trump supporters for their illiteracy and other stupidities, is sharp and funny. Her interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes might launch her as a plausible successor to Kathy Griffin.

There are many legalities attendant to the $130,000 hush money paid to Daniels that could ensnare Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen. But in the aftermath of yesterday’s election result in Trump country, what both the president and his party should most fear is her potential to extend her 15 minutes into a star turn with legs long enough to keep her center stage until November 6.

Frank Rich: The Hidden Logic of Trump’s Staff Exodus