It puts the lie, for example, to those who say, “Don’t pay attention to the tweets.” Firing the senior member of the Cabinet is a consequential act, and it was done by tweet. Every one of those poorly spelled and erratically capitalized micro-eruptions is a presidential statement, and they lead to real outcomes. John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, told Tillerson over the previous weekend to expect a tweet, the Associated Press reported—a vaguely ominous warning more worthy of a Monty Python skit than Shakespeare. But he, too, knew and accepted that a serious action by the United States government would be handled that way.
It is noteworthy that Kelly participated in this cruel charade, failing to give the secretary a confidential heads up about his imminent demise. And so the retired general ripped another piece of soldierly honor and comradely behavior out of his skin and tossed it into the fire burning in the Oval Office. When the story of this administration is written, his really will be a morality tale worthy of, if not Shakespeare, some talented poet.
The replacement of Tillerson by CIA Director Mike Pompeo has obvious consequences: a more hawkish disposition on Iran and probably North Korea; a possible diminution of the influence of the lone pillar of integrity in the administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But it also means something much more important, which is that if you hope to influence Trump or gain access to his inner circle, you have to go full Mnuchin. The Secretary of the Treasury is shameless in his flattery of the president. One suspects that his sycophancy is matched by his cynicism. Pompeo may be more subtle, but the bonding between the president and his secretary-designate seems much more a result of his careful cultivation of Trump during his regular intelligence briefings than any record of managerial or diplomatic accomplishment. The president may like his subordinates to fight with each other—but they had better show unflagging harmony with his instincts, including his worst instincts. That is the price of admission, and these ambitious officials know and accept it.
The upshot of such an environment in the White House is that—again, with the honorable and quite possibly heroic exception of Mattis—it will become more than ever the conniving and dishonest court of an unpredictable, ill-informed, and willful monarch. The president will hear no forceful disagreements; he will not be contradicted; he will believe that his instincts and whims are invariably correct. Those around him may not be quite as honest in admitting their lack of integrity as Peter Navarro, the economic adviser who recently described his job as finding the data to support Trump’s instincts. To stay in favor, however, they will have to do as he does—and hope that the president will forget his really stupid or dangerous decisions while they undo the damage. The dangers of an executive branch run this way, with public groveling and private deceit the order of the day, are evident.