Adapted from “The Best People: Trump’s Cabinet and the Siege on Washington” by Alexander Nazaryan. Copyright © 2019. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
They were the best people, the finest in the land, tasked with returning the nation to greatness. Only some of them had fallen by the wayside. They had not known it was improper to secretly communicate with Russian diplomats during the presidential transition (national security adviser Michael Flynn, 24 days in the Trump administration); they had not figured that good-government types might get to asking questions about $25,000 flights between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia (Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, 231 days).
Yet even as the total number of inquiries and investigations into his Cabinet approached 50, Trump retained unwavering — or at least apparently unwavering — confidence in the men and women he said, during the presidential campaign, would be far superior to the public servants who came before them.
That much was clear when I spoke to Trump in February in the Oval Office.
A sheet of paper lay on a strikingly barren Resolute desk, which Trump appeared to use only for ceremonial occasions. With some weariness — the dinner hour was drawing close, dusk settling over the South Lawn — he picked up the sheet and began reading.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “has been fantastic.”
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao: “has been great.”
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta: “has been great.”
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson: “has done a very good job.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar: “fantastic.”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry: “has been great.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue: “he’s been great.”
Attorney General William Barr: “will be ... really outstanding.”
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney: “People are liking him a lot. I think he’s doing a good job. I’m very happy with him.”
The Cabinet, of course, was much bigger than that. Some of the men and women Trump declined to mention had clearly fallen out of favor. He had, for example, utterly lost faith in Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary. (“He’s just not tough,” former chief political strategist Steve Bannon told me of Ross, lack of toughness being one of the worst sins in Trumpworld.) And he had little respect for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who had only gotten the job because she was connected and rich.
Still, the eternal salesman had to make the sale. Raised on Norman Vincent Peale’s “power positive thinking” quasi-philosophy, the president was attempting to convince both of us that his people really were the best people, even as evidence to the contrary presented itself daily in the form of damning news reports, mystifying congressional testimony and ethics reports that read like treatments for Mafia movies.
“There are those that say we have one of the finest Cabinets,” Trump claimed. That is not a commonly held view. In fact, it is difficult to think of anyone even halfway credible — Republican or Democrat — who has said anything approaching that. Even some of Trump’s most ardent supporters have expressed dismay at the people he has hired, which is why it fell to Fox News primetime anchor Laura Ingraham to push Trump to fire Scott Pruitt, the impressively corrupt administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Trump admitted that, during the presidential transition, he allowed himself to be influenced by outside groups, whether the Heritage Foundation or energy magnate Robert Murray. “I wouldn’t say that I agreed with all of the people,” he told me, “but I let them make their decision. In some cases, I was right.”
As for the other cases?
Well, he left that unsaid.
Once he got into office, Trump quickly signed a stern ethics order that seemed to close the notorious revolving door that allowed people to move freely between working for the federal government and lobbying the federal government on behalf of private interests. But he just as quickly granted waivers that allowed political appointees to violate the rules that Trump had just put in place. Promising to drain the swamp, he merely stirred its murky surface.
When I confronted him with this fact, Trump bristled. “We need certain people to run the country well, at the top level,” he argued. “We have granted waivers. How often do we grant waivers? Have you seen? Not too much, right?” At the same time, he seemed clearly discomfited by the fact that where Trump saw a political movement, others saw nothing but a means for profit. He did not know, for example, that Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary he had fired the previous December, had joined Turnberry Solutions, a Capitol Hill lobbying firm started by Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager.
“I didn’t know that Zinke…” Trump began.
In fact, Trump didn’t know at all about the existence of Turnberry Solutions. “That’s an interesting name,” he said sharply. The name was interesting because Turnberry was also the name of a Trump-owned golf course in Scotland. Nobody who wanted to exert influence in Washington would have missed the association. “That’s amazing,” the president said, though his amazement was plainly not of the felicitous variety.
Trump tried to rationalize how Zinke becoming a lobbyist did not fly in the face of the promises he had made as a candidate. “I guess you can’t stop people from going out and doing what they do,” the president said. “In some cases, they’ve been here from day one, when people said I didn’t have much of a chance. Then they work for years. Then all of a sudden they’re in a position where people are calling them because they think they’re geniuses and they want them to work for them. That’s been going on from George Washington until the present, let’s face it. That’s what happens.”
Zinke wasn’t the only one. A few days before we spoke, ProPublica had found that there were 33 former Trump administration officials who were either lobbying the federal government or were more or less doing the work of a lobbyist without actually registering as such. And it was true that lobbying was old as the republic itself, but had not Trump’s promise been that his administration would be unlike any other? He wanted to claim that he was exceptional, except for those instances when it suited him to claim that he was just like his predecessors.
There was also the matter of more than 100 key administration positions that remained unfilled. These needed Senate confirmation, and though some nominees have withdrawn, many of those positions never had a nominee in the first place, allowing some agencies and departmental offices to languish like unwatered plants.
Trump contradicted this, unsurprisingly, because it did not fit his radiant vision of his own administration, however warped that vision was. “I have 10 people for every job,” he added. “The hard part is choosing, because I have great people.”
Trump did allow that there had been “some clinkers,” by which he presumably meant people like EPA administrator Pruitt and HHS head Price, both of whom left the administration in disgrace, as did several other of their colleagues.
“But that’s OK,” he said of hiring men and women who turned out to be less than they seemed and less than he’d hoped. “Who doesn’t?” True enough. But there’s a difference between a clinker and a charlatan, a man who is no good at his job and a man who sets out to do that job poorly.
“It’s very difficult for people,” Trump said, as if feeling the need to apologize for some of the people who work or once worked for him (not that the president ever actually apologizes). “Some people can’t take it. As much as they want to, they can’t take it.” Conversely, some thought that Trump’s people have done rather too much taking, not nearly enough giving of the kind public service usually demands.
He later acknowledged that “some of them got burned out.” That seemed closer to the truth, if not quite all the way there.
As our conversation came to its close, Trump complained about the books that had been written about him, which he said were uniformly unfair, though he also did not appear to have read any of them. He called Michael Wolff “a dopey guy,” referring to the journalist’s book as “Sound and Fury,” apparently conflating Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” with a William Faulkner novel.
Trump also became upset at senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who was sitting in on the meeting, for apparently keeping Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward from interviewing the president for his own book “Fear,” which was also critical of Trump. “Kellyanne didn’t tell me he asked 10 times for a meeting. I wish she did,” he said bitterly of Conway. “I’m sure it would have been a little bit of a different book.” This obviously bothered him. “You should have told me,” he went on. Honestly, you should have told me.”
Conway just sat there, taking it as she has doubtlessly taken it from the boss many times before. You couldn’t last in this administration unless you were willing to take it daily, take with a smile and a “yessir,” take it even while knowing that much of the country loathed you, considered you complicit in one of the great political crimes in American history. And you would take it in this way that Conway was taking it now only if you truly believed in the man who was giving it, in his vision for the country. Unless, of course, there was something in it for you. There was that too sometimes.
It was now late afternoon, a winter dark descending on Washington. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress were debating Trump’s declaration of an emergency at the border with Mexico, and outside the gates of the White House, protesters were denouncing the same, mingling with religious pamphleteers and tourists in “Make America Great Again” hats. On any given day, you could stand out on Pennsylvania Avenue and watch the gorgeous squalor that was American democracy at work. If you stood there long enough, you might be converted into a Jehovah’s Witness, or a member of the anti-Trump resistance, but would you be any closer to understanding what all of it meant, what any of it meant?
These were questions for another time. I rose to go.
“Get the hell out of here, now,” the president told me. “All right. Good. Have a good time.”
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