If you work for President Trump, what’s your red line? When do his words and actions become so chilling and outrageous that you have no choice but to walk away?
Trump went rogue during Tuesday’s press conference, but not rogue enough for any administration official or White House staffer to resign in protest. A half-dozen business leaders have stepped down from presidential advisory councils in the wake of the president’s alarming comments about the murder and mayhem in Charlottesville, Va. But no one in Trump’s inner circle has yet abandoned ship — and maybe that’s a good thing for the rest of us.
As the president declared the “alt-left” as much to blame for the deadly violence in Charlottesville as the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, chief of staff John Kelly bowed his head and looked pained. Others, like Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, appeared shell-shocked as Trump veered wildly off script from what was supposed to be an infrastructure announcement.
Afterwards, Cohn put out word that he was “upset” and disgusted,” not to mention “somewhere between appalled and furious” — but he’s still working for Trump. An anonymous White House source told CNN no one knew Trump was going to relitigate Charlottesville and blame both sides for what transpired. But no one spoke out publicly about the president’s words, let alone quit.
Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation and wife of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, whom Trump has repeatedly trashed, said after Trump’s press conference, “I stand by my man — both of them.” Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, let it be known from their vacation perch in Vermont that they were behind the earlier effort to moderate Trump’s response to Charlottesville. But at this point does anyone really expect them to curtail Trump’s lunacy in a meaningful way?
Republican consultant Rick Wilson argues in the Washington Post that if you work for Trump, it’s time to exit. “Whether you’re a 20-something fresh off the campaign trail, or a seasoned Washington insider serving in the Cabinet, by now you’re painfully aware that you’re not making America great again,” he writes. “When this regime falls, do you want to be among those who said, ‘not me,’ or do you want to go out like a Baath party generalissimo?”
That’s certainly something to mull every morning as you drape your White House ID around your neck. Yet it might be even more courageous to stay, knowing your exit leaves the president ever more in the clutches of the axis of evil represented by those apostles of white nationalism, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
But only if you also have the spine to look Trump in the eye and tell him his behavior sickens you and the country. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, some aides to President Clinton did a version of that. Donna Shalala, then the Health and Human Services secretary, listened to Clinton apologize and promise to change, and then told him: “To say it is one thing, to demonstrate it is another.”
Of course, she was dealing with a president who cried as he sought forgiveness from his staff. Trump has little use for people who tell him the truth about himself. So it takes a special brand of courage to try. Perhaps Kelly, a retired marine general, has what it takes. He was reportedly one of those aides who told Trump his first statement on Charlottesville did not go far enough and he needed to denounce the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.
And what did that get him?
Trump’s crazy talk on Tuesday.
Time to redraw the red line and confront Trump again.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.