I imagine more than a few people who work in the Trump administration wake up on many days and ask themselves, “How do I get out of this?” For them, the answer is a cruel one: You can’t. It’s already too late.
But let’s back up. Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president with almost no support from what people dismissively call “the establishment,” which is really nothing more than a collection of experienced individuals. Once he was their party’s nominee, they each had to make a choice. Should I support him, despite all that he has shown of himself? Can I get away with half-supporting him? Many politicians could — they could easily say, “I have some doubts, but I’ll work with him when we agree,” and then change the subject.
But other Republicans were faced with an all-or-nothing choice. You see, a new president represents an absolute bonanza of opportunity in Washington, for one party or the other. When your side takes power, thousands of jobs open up, and getting one can mean an unmatched boost to your career. You’ll learn things you didn’t know about government, make a web of connections you’ll be able to draw on for years, and get that priceless “former administration official” next to your name, which is an account full of credibility and gravitas you’ll be able to draw on for decades. And there’s no telling how long you’ll have to wait for the opportunity to come again.
So if you were one of those D.C. Republicans — a press flak on Capitol Hill, or an expert in foreign policy working at a think tank, let’s say — you had to ask yourself, “Should I go to work for this administration or not? What are the risks to my reputation, to my integrity, to my future? Do they outweigh the benefits and the good I can do?” At the highest levels, people had to ask themselves, “Can I keep Donald Trump from being Donald Trump, and in the process maybe save America from him?”
There’s little doubt anymore that the answer is no.
As Trump descends into another round of bitter sniping at those who displease him — a retiring Republican senator, a bunch of professional athletes, a TV personality — we’re treated to another round of articles about the anguish of the White House staff as they try to deal with the absurd whims and dangerous impulses of the president. “Trump in recent days has shown flashes of fury and left his aides, including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, scrambling to manage his outbursts,” we hear, and staffers have to “step in to avert a rash decision by calming him down” after a conversation with Sean Hannity gets him too worked up, like a toddler who ate too much chocolate. And nothing makes him angrier than a lack of loyalty; Trump told an interviewer, upon hearing that his secretary of state referred to him as a “f-ing moron,” “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.” I know middle schoolers who display more maturity.
Even if you didn’t make Rex Tillerson’s mistake and blurt out your true feelings to people who would tell reporters about it, even if you have skillfully avoided Trump’s wrath, one thing you cannot avoid is the judgment of history. You chose this. You chose to work for Donald Trump, and as he turned out to be just as bad as we all imagined, his stain is upon you, where it will remain.
Some administration figures are doing a better job than others of preserving some portion of their reputations; Secretary of Defense James Mattis is getting praise from many quarters for his ability to talk at least some measure of sense into the president. But can you think of any other administration figures who look better now than they did before they signed on with Trump? Who seem to be smarter or more competent or possessed of greater integrity? Take someone like H.R. McMaster, who was a widely admired Army general before he became Trump’s national security adviser. What do people think of him now? The best you can say about him is that he took on a nearly impossible job — bringing some sanity to this administration’s national security policy — and failed.
And don’t think that bailing out now will do you any good, because once you sat down at your desk on that first day, you were and will forever remain a Trump aide. Anthony Scaramucci could find the cure for cancer, and when he dies decades hence his obituary would read, “Served Briefly in Trump Administration; Later Made Cancer Discovery.” Going to work for Donald Trump is like getting a neck tattoo: In some circles it’s acceptable, but it’s a mark that no one will ever be able to look at you and not see.
There will be many Republicans, particularly those on Capitol Hill, who in years to come will rewrite their own histories. “I never liked him,” they’ll say. “I knew he’d be a disaster.” “I supported Rubio.” “I condemned his outrages — privately, of course.” Lots of them will get away with it.
But if you went to work in this administration, you won’t be able to say any of that. As you know by now, there is no noble way to serve this president. Donald Trump is what he always was, and he will never be anything else. He will not grow. He will not learn. He will not become wiser or less impulsive or more presidential. And if you made that fateful choice to work for him, you will wear his mark not just for the rest of your days, but for as long as anyone remembers your name.