Why Trump's aides are so openly trashing him
President Trump's critics never seem to quit.
In just the last week, one detractor gave an interview to the Financial Times suggesting that the president needs to "do better" to condemn white supremacy after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia; another went on Fox News and said President Trump speaks for himself — and maybe not for the country — in expressing America's values on the world stage. Tough stuff.
The problem for Trump? These detractors work for him.
It was Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council — and one of Trump's most prominent Jewish advisers — who criticized the president to the Financial Times. And it was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who told Fox News that Trump "speaks for himself" on American values, leaving Chris Wallace slack-jawed.
In most administrations, it's practically taboo for White House officials to criticize their president so openly and on the record — or even to suggest a sliver of difference with the president's views. "You should not air the dirty laundry with the president in public," Roger Stone, a Trump ally, sniffed to The Washington Post.
This, of course, isn't most administrations. Which suggests one reason Cohn and Tillerson might've said what they said: History is watching. And they know it.
Yes, history is always watching the White House. But given the disruption Trump caused by being elected, and his inability to let a week go by without distraction and controversy, it seems likely that this administration will get the treatment more than most — that, like the Nixon administration, which practically created its own cottage industry in publishing, it will be dissected by historians, journalists, and writers for decades to come.
There will be heroes and villains in those stories. And surely, lots of people working for President Trump have already decided that they don't want to be seen as the villains. So how can they prevent it?
The way this typically works is two-fold: First, smart officials cultivate journalists assiduously and "leak" their off-the-record assessments to get real-time observations into the public debate. Meanwhile, everybody keeps a diary of sorts so they can write a tell-all memoir after leaving office, where they can portray themselves as frankly — and heroically — providing advice the president didn't want to hear.
The leaking is clearly happening, and the diary-keeping almost certainly is too. But Cohn and Tillerson are taking things much further — and I suspect it's because they know that the president is so plainly and extremely wrong about so much.
"The wrong side of history" is a terrible cliché, meant to short-circuit debates before they get started. Whenever you hear somebody use the phrase, it almost always means they'd rather avoid arguing a subject on its merits. Except that history has pretty much already pronounced its judgments on Nazis, Confederates, and white supremacists, and the verdict is not that they are "very fine people." Same thing for murderous despots of the type that President Trump goes out of his way to avoid criticizing. In both cases, the wrong side of history is also, emphatically, the wrong side of now.
That doesn't mean all the debates and struggles surrounding race and governance are settled once and for all, nor does it mean we can't — as a society — backtrack. It does mean, however, that in the broad sweep of things, well, you might not want your reputation and legacy tied to President Trump.
Remember, Cohn and Tillerson were proud, accomplished men before they went to work for Trump. They probably envisioned enhancing legacies the usual way — by endowing universities, funding the arts, contributing to charity, and having their names put on buildings. Now? It's all too easy to envision angry undergrads of 2040 demanding those names be removed, if they ever get there at all.
The people who work for Trump have already cast their lot with him for various reasons: to push their own agendas, for prestige, or simply to serve their country. So the best they can hope for now is to do a little salvage work, and hope the books that are written have a little bit of nuance to them.
Will it be enough? History tends to be kindest to outsiders who boldly speak "truth" to power. Think about the heroes of Watergate — journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, senators like Howard Baker. Insiders like Mark Felt, the FBI official who served as the "Deep Throat" source to Woodward and Bernstein, tend to be viewed a bit skeptically, but more charitably than the insiders who don't leak.
But perhaps to be viewed skeptically is a win over flat-out villainy. When it comes time to start influencing the story that history will tell, there's no time like the present.