Rex Tillerson's agony, and ours: Trump's revolving door will keep spinning

Have Tillerson, Jim Mattis and Steve Mnuchin really vowed a "suicide pact," where if one goes they all do?

Published October 8, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

Rex Tillerson (Getty/Brendan Smialowski)
Rex Tillerson (Getty/Brendan Smialowski)

Years ago, I worked in a customer service job where staff were treated like servants to an arrogant and unappreciative boss. Upstairs, in a room where employees changed into their uniforms before their shifts began, there was a shelf full of shoes that didn’t appear to belong to anyone. One day I asked a colleague why there were so many pairs of shoes compared to the number of staff members.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “They’re from all the people who walked out and quit without bothering to come back and change their clothes.”

I don’t know what the White House equivalent of the shelf full of shoes is, but I’m sure many current and former members of President Donald Trump’s administration can relate to the feeling of wanting to walk out the door to never return.

Such are the obvious humiliations and indignities of working for Trump.

After NBC reported last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had threatened to resign in July and called the president a “moron” while venting his frustrations to colleagues, Tillerson was expected to resign. By not doing so, he missed an opportunity to exit in a blaze of glory, admitting to the crude language that echoed the sentiments of millions. Now Tillerson’s days are likely numbered. He is a sitting duck, waiting for Trump to fire him.

Because Trump, as we already know, really relishes firing people. When he’s not actually firing them, he’s joking publicly about firing people. Like the time he joked about replacing United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley during a lunch with members of the Security Council. Or the time he “joked” that if former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price didn’t get the votes to pass Trump's health care bill, that he’d have to fire him. (He later did fire Price, for spending $1 million of taxpayer money on 26 chartered flights during his short tenure.)

If Tillerson had resigned, he’d be joining a long list of others who have already packed it in or been handed their walking papers. Trump’s administration is a chaotic mess. From day one, he has been running the White House as though his words and decisions there are as inconsequential as they were on "The Apprentice."

One assumes the president sees it differently, of course. In TrumpWorld, you always get what you want by being loud and obnoxious — and firing people left, right and center makes you admirable and impressive.

What Trump doesn’t seem to realize is that his inability to foster loyalty and respect among those around him is because he has never shown any. He is blind to the fact that the incredible level of staff turnover at the White House just makes him look like an idiot who couldn’t manage a lemonade stand — even if he was given a “small loan” of $14 million to get it up and running.

Remember, this is a man who is so immature and whose skin is so thin that his staff has admitted to asking “friendly” journalists to write and tweet positively about him to keep him from flying off the handle and throwing his toys out of the crib in a childish rage (i.e., tweeting something insane).

If they were honest with themselves, how many people who are working for Trump could truly say they are working for him because they respect and admire him? I’d venture to guess not many.

The club of Trump administration has-beens now includes Mike Flynn, James Comey, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci and Tom Price — among others.

While it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for any of them, Spicer might have had it the worst, since his thankless job explicitly revolved around spinning tales for Trump in front of the press every day.

Among the many embarrassments Spicer suffered was the infamous “hiding in the bushes” incident after Trump fired Comey without giving Spicer a proper heads up. Then there was the time Spicer was sent out to the podium to defend Trump’s “covfefe” tweet in a manner that suggested it might have actually meant something. Trump made his indifference to Spicer clear last May when he failed to add him to the list of administration officials who would meet Pope Francis during the president's trip to the Vatican in May — even though Spicer is a Catholic and reportedly expressed a strong desire to be present for the meeting.

In July, hours after Scaramucci launched a profanity-laced attack on Priebus in an interview with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, Trump announced Priebus’ firing over Twitter. He then tweeted that Priebus would be replaced with Gen. John Kelly, who was then secretary of Homeland Security.

But Kelly soon found himself on the receiving end of one of Trump’s tantrums after aides suggested that the president “refrain from injecting politics into day-to-day issues of governing.” Trump apparently unleashed on Kelly, who is said to have reacted calmly but later told aides he would not abide by such treatment from Trump in the future.

Tensions between Trump and Kelly have seemingly been on the rise since then, though Trump has denied those reports on Twitter. This week when Kelly stayed at the White House to do damage control on "moron-gate," instead of accompanying Trump to Las Vegas, some speculated that Kelly may soon resign himself. It surely doesn’t help that it’s just been discovered that Kelly’s personal phone was apparently hacked and compromised for months.

Yet another Trump courtier whose future has been in doubt for weeks now is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump reportedly berated Sessions during a meeting in the Oval Office in May, accusing him of disloyalty for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. Sessions later told associates that the way Trump had spoken to him had been the most humiliating experience of his decades in public life.

It’s difficult to imagine that Trump’s administration could get any more chaotic and disorganized than it already is, but with Tillerson and Kelly hanging by a thread, things could easily get worse.

Things are so tumultuous that rumor has it that Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have entered into a “suicide pact” whereby all three will go if Trump makes a move against one of them. If that is true, it could also be a factor in the decision not to cut Tillerson loose — at least not this week.

Trump has created a demoralizing and toxic working environment. Time and again he has shown that he treats people with utter disrespect. He has no qualms about humiliating or dressing down members of his own administration. He never hesitates to undercut them or threaten them in public. He rages about disloyalty and disrespect, but rarely acts in a way that would cultivate the loyalty or respect he so desires.

Then again, it’s not like the people who went to work for Trump didn’t know what they were in for when they signed up, so it’s hard to feel too sorry for them. They made their beds.

The revolving door at Trump’s White House will keep spinning until the president grows up, learns how to take advice like an adult and starts to control his infantile fits of rage at real or perceived slights. Unless that somehow, someday happens, the slew of resignations and firings is likely to continue.

Very little of the business of government can get done while White House staffers are preoccupied with running around trying to soothe the president’s hurt feelings and stroking his fragile ego. Then again, some would suggest that in this case that's a good thing.


By Danielle Ryan

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance journalist, writing mostly on geopolitics and media. She is based in Budapest, but has also lived in the U.S., Germany and Russia. Follow her on Twitter.

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