One of the emblematic phenomena of Donald Trump’s presidency was the weeks (or sometimes fortnights) of chaos, when it seemed like the administration was struck by a new crisis every day, like watching a Wile E. Coyote supercut, except occasionally with real ordnance.
Trump is out of the White House, and those weeks of utter turmoil left when he did, but former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is having one of those stretches all on his own. That isn’t the only way Meadows has found that he can’t escape the past. Through his travails over the past two weeks, Meadows has learned the hard way that Trump is still the king—and that even modest distancing from him won’t be tolerated.
The tough lesson began on November 30, when Meadows agreed to participate with the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. Trump detests the committee, but Meadows seemed to have been spooked by Steve Bannon’s indictment for contempt of Congress.
The next day brought more explosive news: The Guardian published a scoop from Meadows’s new memoir of his time with Trump, The Chief’s Chief, that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus three days before the September 2020 presidential debate with Joe Biden. (A second test came back negative, but within a few days Trump had become deathly ill.) The debate’s organizers required a negative test but left it on the “honor system,” per the moderator Chris Wallace, which it turns out is not an effective mechanism for handling a serial liar. Meadows’s book suggests that Trump knew he might be positive even as he debated Biden. Days after the debate, Trump claimed that he could have gotten the virus from Gold Star families he met after the initial positive test result.
Trump did not take well to the revelation of his positive test, writing in a statement, “The story of me having COVID prior to, or during, the first debate is Fake News. In fact, a test revealed that I did not have COVID prior to the debate.” Trying to clean up the mess, Meadows humiliatingly went on Newsmax and agreed that his own book is “fake news.” Unsurprisingly, this did not satisfy Trump. The Daily Beast reported that Trump had a terse review of the book—“fucking stupid”—and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reported that the former president felt betrayed by and angry with his former aide.
Nearly a week later, on Tuesday, Meadows’s book hit shelves, and it has not received the kind of Trump publicity campaign that really moves copies. As of this writing, The Chief’s Chief is at No. 284 on Amazon, lagging far behind Meadows’s former colleague Kayleigh McEnany’s own memoir (No. 15). But Meadows was perhaps distracted from his sales figures as he tried to contain a different crisis: Also on Tuesday, he withdrew his participation from the January 6 committee, prompting some of its members to threaten to hold him in contempt. Meadows then sued the committee. To top off this incredible run, the National Archives told Politico that Meadows seemed to not have properly turned over all his White House records as legally required.
According to the Daily Beast, Meadows expected Trump to like his book, which reflects either Meadows’s reasonable confidence that Trump wouldn’t read it (it is, after all, a book) or else a grave misunderstanding of Trump’s Manichaean worldview, even at this late stage. Meadows’s actions—writing a tell-some and agreeing to cooperate with the committee—were those of a man who believed that Trump’s powers were fading or that his sycophancy had been proved enough that he’d get the leeway to cash in and save himself from legal exposure. The past week has shown how wrong he was.
Up until now, Meadows had done his best to display unerring loyalty to Trump. He rose to prominence as a U.S. representative from North Carolina and a stalwart of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, which opposes government spending and abhors deficits. In 2013, he helped force a government shutdown in an unsuccessful attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. Meadows gave some indication of both his inconstancy and his willingness to abase himself while in the House. Also in 2013, he joined a group of renegades who sought to oust Speaker John Boehner. Afterward, he got on his knees to beg Boehner for forgiveness. Two years later, he once again pushed to topple the speaker, and this time the rebellion precipitated Boehner’s resignation.
Although he was a staunch proponent of fiscal discipline when Barack Obama was president, Meadows’s devotion became notably weaker once Trump took office. In 2017, as the president backed a set of large tax cuts, Meadows told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the package didn’t need to be revenue-neutral. A year later, he expressed frustration about expanding deficits, as though the president he backed and the tax cuts he had voted for weren’t part of the problem.
Meadows continued to praise the president, and in spring 2020 his loyalty paid off with the white-elephant gift of a promotion to White House chief of staff. There was never a good time to be Trump’s chief of staff, but Meadows’s term was especially brutal: He joined just as the pandemic was ramping up and he was present through an economic collapse, massive national protests over police violence, the president’s bout with COVID-19, Trump’s loss to Biden, and Trump’s protracted attempts to steal the election.
Unlike his predecessors John Kelly, who turned sharply critical of Trump after leaving the White House, and Mick Mulvaney, who quit his job as envoy to Northern Ireland after January 6, Meadows did not break ranks with Trump and worked to find ways to back Trump’s steal. But he found himself in a tough spot this year: The White House gig was over, he was facing legal difficulty, and he no doubt wanted to make a buck. (How could Trump, of all people, object to that?) Perhaps Meadows believed that his previous loyalty had bought him enough room to look out for himself—or that Trump’s grip on the Republican Party was getting looser.
As he now knows, however, Trump retains immense power over GOP elites—and over Meadows himself, as the former aide’s contortions this week show. Trump won’t tolerate even a hint of deviation from his line. You have to choose which side you’re on, even if that means siding with him against yourself.