At the risk of adopting Donald Trump’s own Manichaean worldview, there are two basic options for anyone dealing with the president: Cozy up or keep your distance. This is true in both domestic politics and international affairs. Stateside, the dangers—reputational as well as legal—of closeness with Trump have become clear, and the past weekend showed the perils for world leaders who tried to get on the president’s good side.
As the Trump administration kicked off, numerous aspiring Washington operatives had to choose whether to work for Trump. For some, the question was whether they should take a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work in the White House, at the risk of working for an unpredictable administration. For others, the choice was whether to swallow one’s reservations about the president himself and try to control the damage from inside the administration. In the first days of the Trump presidency, my colleague David Frum advised prospective staffers to stay away.
By and large, that advice has been vindicated. Almost no one who has gotten close to Trump has come away unscathed by the encounter. John Kelly had capped a career as a decorated Marine general. Now he works in a “miserable” office for a president who routinely berates him; meanwhile, Kelly has outed himself as an apologist for Confederates and domestic abusers with a tendency toward pejorative statements about Hispanics and African Americans. Rex Tillerson had a successful business career before becoming secretary of state; in that role, he was routinely embarrassed by the president, then reportedly fired while on the toilet. H.R. McMaster was viewed as an uncommonly smart and honest general; as national-security adviser, he squandered his credibility, lost on nearly every major policy battle, and then was unceremoniously forced from office without ever attaining a fourth star. Ronny Jackson was a widely respected White House doctor before being nominated to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs; now, after a disastrous and poorly considered Cabinet nomination, Jackson is not veterans-affairs secretary, nor a White House doctor, nor widely respected.