Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Donald Trump’s staff infection

President Donald Trump speaks to the media before meeting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
President Trump.

Who wants to take over as first mate of the Titanic?

Post iceberg encounter, that is.

That’s the question now confronting President Trump and his scandal-scarred administration.

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This president started his administration with a mediocre team — and now he’s trading down.

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You could count his original stars on a sloth’s toes: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn. Others, like Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, and Reince Priebus, his first chief of staff, were decent people, but obviously in leagues over their heads.

Still others were obvious disasters waiting to happen. Put in that category disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, cashiered EPA chief Scott Pruitt, and extravagant, high-flying Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Then there were the dogmatists and ideologues, the mediocrities and incompetents. An incomplete list of the inventory in that cupboard would include trade adviser Peter Navarro , Gollum-like chief strategist Steve Bannon, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, Education Secretary Betsey DeVos, and family sinecurists Ivanka and Jared.

A normal administration’s governing arc sees the incompetent or ill-suited appointments weeded out over time, with more able people taking over as they leave. That’s more or less what happened when Priebus was ushered out as chief of staff in favor of General John Kelly.

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But Trump quickly tires of people who aren’t footmen or flatterers, and so he grew weary of Kelly. Problem: This controversy-clouded president is beyond the point where he can attract good or even adequate replacements. We saw that when 36-year-old Nick Ayers, chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, turned him down for what is usually a career-making promotion.

Even without the controversies that swirl around this president, anyone of true talent has to be leery about working for him, particularly in a White House staff job. To do so is to risk one’s integrity, principles, and dignity in the service of a man who can’t meet a margin call in any of those characterological categories.

Add in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations, and joining Team Trump is akin to diving head first into a pit of quicksand. You may well find yourself expected to do things that would taint you forever. That was the case with White House counsel Don McGahn, whom Trump ordered to fire Mueller — and who had to threaten to quit to forestall that command. Or you may be called before a grand jury and have to lawyer up at your own expense. At the very least, if you speak your mind and stand your ground, you’ll end up being privately browbeaten, and quite possibly publicly disparaged, by your boss.

In that light, working in the Trump administration brings to mind what Friedrich Hayek said in “The Road to Serfdom” about those who serve in totalitarian governments:

“Yet while there is little that is likely to induce men who are good by our standards to aspire to leading positions in the totalitarian machine, and much to deter them, there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous. . . . And as there will be need for actions which are bad in themselves, and which all those still influenced by traditional morals will be reluctant to perform, the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion and power.”

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The Trump cult already has serf-like supporters aplenty, those who aren’t swayed or dismayed by facts or scandals or lies. But now, with Kelly’s impending departure, look for the crucial White House chief of staff position to lurch in the direction of blindly loyal sycophancy too.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.