This article was updated on April 13, 2020, at 6:59pm.
Anthony Fauci has been different from any other prominent official Donald Trump has dealt with in his time as president. The difference is that Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is not afraid. To put it in terms Trump might recognize: What the hell does he have to lose?
This reality does not make it possible to predict what Trump will do with Fauci—fire him, ignore him, give him buddylike Hey, we see things differently respect, or something else. Nothing about Trump is predictable, except his reduction of all discourse to the two themes of his own greatness and the unfairness of his critics.
But it may explain why the familiar dynamics of Trump’s unhappiness with underlings—first the retweets of criticism, then the “Behind you 1,000 percent!” show of public support, then the dismissal, then the anger and insults from Trump—could take a different course this time.
In the nearly five years since Donald Trump came down the escalator to declare his candidacy, a set of iron laws has applied to those who enter his orbit.
Rick Wilson, the former GOP strategist who is now a Trump nemesis, summed up the pattern in the title of his best-selling book from last year: Everything Trump Touches Dies. The details vary, but being tempted by Trump has turned into the modern version of the Faust saga. In exchange for benefits that seem glittery and attractive, people around Trump give away much more than they could have reckoned.
- Some are in prison, or on their way there. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, his adviser Roger Stone, and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, among others, would probably be at large today were it not for their part in Trump’s campaign and administration. Perhaps also his early campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
- Some have avoided legal jeopardy but been exposed in ways they would rather have avoided. Trump’s first secretary of health and human services, Tom Price; his first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke; his first White House physician, Ronny Jackson; his first labor secretary, Alex Acosta; his first White House staff secretary, Rob Porter; his acting Navy secretary until last week, Thomas Modly; and others are out of those jobs and damaged in reputation because of financial, personal, or characterological issues their prominence brought to light.
- Some have been placed in roles for which they are preposterously mismatched and that have exposed their limitations: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who now is expected to run urban policy; Ivanka Trump, favored child and now proxy for the president in international gatherings; Jared Kushner … let us move on.
- Many who had previous records of public or corporate service have left as diminished people. Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, had previously been seen as a competent Republican political staffer. The same was true of Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, had been known as a successful CEO of one of the world’s largest companies. Gary Cohn, Trump’s first economic adviser, had been president of Goldman Sachs. Before his service as Trump’s second national security adviser, H. R. McMaster was an Army general renowned for his independence—renown originating with a fearless book, Dereliction of Duty, on the way Vietnam-era generals had not spoken truth to power about that war. During his service in the White House (while still on active duty as an Army officer), McMaster reportedly resisted Trump’s impulses on numerous fronts, occasionally delivered the Trump company line in public—and ultimately Trump forced him out anyway. In his role as Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr is ending his career with a reputation as the most relentlessly partisan wielder of judicial power in modern history. (Harsh? Here is a starter on the evidence, and a federal judge’s conclusion about Barr’s distortion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.) Although Barr had been an important partisan figure during the elder George Bush’s administration, before serving Trump, he was seen as “steeped in the traditions and culture of the Justice Department” and had a “formidable mind and deep experience of precisely the right type.” That was an assessment in this very space by Benjamin Wittes, who after observing Barr in office for only a few months judged his performance as “catastrophic.” (“I was willing to give Bill Barr a chance,” Wittes wrote. “Consider me burned.”)
- Many proud and successful officials have had to swallow their dignity, and worse. In his first full Cabinet meeting, which bizarrely didn’t happen until nearly five months into his term, Trump initiated the humiliating ritual of having each Cabinet secretary give a statement of personal praise for Trump—about his goodness, his wisdom, his strength. Trump called on his vice president, Mike Pence, to lead off and set an example for the others, and Pence of course complied. “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to a president who is keeping his word to the American people,” he began. This ritual obeisance has become so standard a feature of the Trump circle—repeated, for instance, nearly every day by Pence and others at the Trump rallies disguised as virus briefings—that it’s hard to remember how outside the norm of governance it really is. But it is new: All presidents have limitless egos, but previous incumbents have understood the cheesiness of making people praise them in public. The one Cabinet official who did not play ball that first day—Trump’s first secretary of defense, the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis—praised his troops, not his boss. But even Mattis has been extremely careful not to criticize Trump since his own departure.
- And virtually all elected Republicans have faced a choice. On the one hand, principles they had long claimed to support: fear of federal deficits, belief in free trade, congressional limits on the executive, standards of personal probity. On the other hand, loyalty to Donald Trump himself. Virtually all of them have chosen Trump. “Virtually” because of Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party rather than accept the violence done to his past principles; and Mitt Romney, who stayed with the party but as a new senator from Utah cast the only GOP impeachment vote against Trump.