The Myth of Trump's Loyalty
Despite his boasts, the president built his success on his willingness to toss aside mentors, friends, and family members during moments of frustration and chaos.
There are many perks that come with a high-profile post in the Trump administration; job security does not appear to be among them.
Six weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, one key member of his inner-circle has already been tossed overboard, and a second is facing noisy calls for resignation. Meanwhile, a recent spate of buzzy insider news stories portrays a chaos-gripped White House filled with aides desperately clinging to their jobs while the president spirals into fits of rage over their incompetence. Trump went “ballistic” on senior staffers, says ABC News; the “knives are out” for chief-of-staff Reince Preibus, reports Politico. And just for good measure, here’s some footage of chief strategist Steve Bannon gesticulating angrily during a recent Oval Office meeting.
All the drama begs the question: When will the next Trump adviser get the ax?
Though Trump likes to boast of his fierce personal loyalty—both to his employees, and to his supporters—he has demonstrated a tendency throughout his life and career to throw even the most dedicated allies under the bus at moments of peak crisis. And with “peak crisis” as the default setting of the Trump presidency so far, this pattern of behavior is worth a close examination.
As I’ve written before, Trump’s professional inner-circle has been purged and reconstructed many times throughout his decades-long business career, with close alliances and partnerships frequently ending in a mess of litigation and public feuding.
In some cases, Trump cuts ties to avoid personal embarrassment. When Roy Cohn—the notorious attorney-cum-operator who was instrumental in getting young Donald established in New York City—was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the ‘80s, Trump promptly ditched his friend and mentor. Stunned by the betrayal, Cohn reportedly marveled, “Donald pisses ice water.”
In other cases, Trump has sacrificed personal loyalty in search of a scapegoat. In 1990, he sought to shift the blame for the early failures of the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City onto his younger brother, Robert. According to one former executive who later recounted the episode in a book, Trump bitterly rebuked his brother—who worked for him at the time—in front of other employees. “I thought you could handle this,” Trump said. “I must’ve been out of my mind. I let you make recommendations. I’m sick and fucking tired of listening to you.” Robert responded by storming out of the casino, unwilling to endure further abuse.
Perhaps one of the most fraught positions for someone to occupy in Trump’s orbit is that of the PR man. Long before he earned the distinction of becoming the first president to live-tweet cable news, Trump was a headline-obsessed media junkie who devoured the New York Post daily and demanded round-the-clock attention from the publicists on his payroll. In one emblematic example from the early ‘90s, Trump became irate that he was losing the media battle with his first wife, Ivana, as their breakup dominated the tabloids—so he fired the public-relations consultant that his family had employed for more than two decades. Asked about the incident years later, the consultant, Howard Rubenstein, waved it off as a short-lived temper tantrum. “There was a time when [Trump] was upset with everybody,” he shrugged.
Still, in retrospect, the episode seems to have foreshadowed Trump’s widely chronicled displeasure with Sean Spicer. Several people who have worked with Trump speculated to me that the beleaguered White House press secretary won’t last long, if only because it’s virtually impossible to get passing marks from this president in that job. During the transition, one Republican who was being considered for the press secretary post told me he wasn’t interested because, “I’m in a good place with [Trump] right now … and that job is too easy to screw up.”
Throughout the election, Trump showed a similar inclination to churn rapidly through top aides and allies, with a perpetually in-flux campaign organization that was helmed by three different people in less than 18 months.
The candidate demonstrated his convenient application of loyalty early in the cycle when it was discovered that Sam Nunberg—a deeply devoted adviser who had spent years laying the groundwork for his boss’s presidential bid—had written some racist posts on his personal Facebook page. The revelation caused a minor stir in the news, and Nunberg quickly apologized. But while he managed to win the forgiveness of Al Sharpton, Trump was less merciful, firing the young aide and allowing his campaign to release a humiliating statement that referred to him as a “low level part-time consultant.” Nunberg was crushed, and later told me that for months after his firing he would get teary-eyed every time he walked past Trump Tower. “I loved Donald like an uncle,” he said, adding, “He can certainly be loyal, but it’s selective.”
At the time, Nunberg’s firing was viewed inside Trumplandia as a victory for Corey Lewandowski, the hard-charging campaign manager who was then busy consolidating power within the organization. But it wasn’t long before he, too, found his job in peril. After roughly grabbing a female reporter in a press scrum, Lewandowski faced a battery charge and a chorus of critics calling for his head. Trump stuck by him at first, even spinning his own refusal to fire the aide as a selling point for voters. (During a meeting with Jewish reporters, for example, Trump cited his loyalty to Lewandowski as proof that he would be a stalwart ally to Israel.)
The charges against Lewandowski were dropped, but Trump eventually fired him anyway. The reasons for the dismissal were murky—Lewandowski had made a number of enemies who were eager to see him go—but when Trump was asked about it, he said simply that it was time to take a “different route.”
The operative who took Lewandowski’s place, Paul Manafort, lasted less than two months before landing on the chopping block— forced to resign amid reports of his past lobbying for pro-Russia oligarchs.
There’s no reason to believe that Trump’s administration will be any less turbulent than his campaign or casino business were. Of course, Trump’s defenders would point to his victory in November over a cautious opponent who ran a well-oiled machine of a campaign as proof that stability is not necessary for success. Maybe they’re right. But Trump built his success on his willingness to toss aside mentors, friends, and family members during moments of frustration and chaos—and as aides and appointees now bet their careers on his willingness to reciprocate their loyalty, they’re also gambling that at 70, he’ll suddenly change.