Politics & Policy

Trump’s Washington and the Degrading of Public Service

President Trump with national security advisor H.R. McMaster at Joint Base Andrews in June. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
What would John Quincy Adams make of the operatives inside today’s White House?

There was a time in American history when devoting one’s career to the public interest was the pinnacle of civic honor and the nation’s most illustrious businessmen answered the call of service. John F. Kennedy lured Robert McNamara from the presidency of the Ford Motor Company to the Department of Defense; Herbert Hoover made a fortune as a mining engineer before devoting himself to humanitarian work during the First World War.

It’s possible to read the Trump administration that way, and the president’s more fervent admirers probably do so. Donald Trump, a businessman famous across the world, entered politics at the end of his long career, to rejuvenate the country he knows and loves; he brought with him a coterie of former businessmen and financiers eager to put their minds toward paying back their country the debt they owe it. Trump and his comrades might appear as the Roman Cincinnatus, those who depart from their hard-earned riches and a life of luxury to offer their services to their homeland.

The reality is far different. Public service in the Trump administration has become an inglorious thing, the domain of those who seem to ache for their 15 minutes of fame and attention, perhaps for a chance to benefit themselves from some new policy, or just for some proximity to real power. Those who don’t deserve this criticism probably deserve instead to stand accused of incompetence. At the same time, people who have long served in government, and who harbor a proper reverence for civic duty, have begun their exodus. What we are left with is a motley crew of skivvers and cretins serving alongside once-noble men now reduced to pathetic husks of their former selves.

This is perhaps most evident in the persona of the national-security adviser, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster. Once an esteemed military intellect and famed leader of men in battle, McMaster was recruited by the administration to serve as the president’s chief adviser on national security after the resignation of Michael Flynn in February. Hopes were high for McMaster’s tenure — here was a serving general, highly respected within his profession and without, who could lend some institutional heft and reasonableness to the Trump White House. Perhaps he could restore some dignity to the drifting institutions of state.

Things have gone downhill for McMaster. He reached his nadir on May 15, when he made a public statement to deny the Washington Post’s report, based on anonymous sources, that Trump had shared classified intelligence with Russian officials. McMaster’s denial was in no uncertain terms:

The story that came out tonight as reported is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation.

At no time, at no time, where intelligent sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of the state, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh anonymous sources. I was in the room. It didn’t happen.

But shortly after McMaster’s on-camera statement, Trump tweeted:

As President, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.

To Trump’s critics, McMaster, having exchanged his general’s uniform for a civilian suit, looked a fool, his reputation tarnished. He entered the White House out of a sacred obligation to serve his country wherever it might need him. But it seems to be Trump, not the country, whom he serves.

McMaster is only one part of a larger story. Throughout the highest echelons of American government, and especially in the White House itself, we are seeing nothing less than a degradation of the meaning of public office. The gaggle of lawyers surrounding the president is a necessary evil of any administration. But typically it is a distinguished group of consummate professionals. Under Trump it is a collection of his less-than-upstanding associates from his former life in business. Marc Kasowitz and Michael Cohen are the best examples. These are men inextricably mired in the Russia affair — indeed, they have starring parts in that sordid drama, with Cohen rumored to have met with Kremlin operatives during the campaign and Kasowitz until recently having represented Trump on the Russia investigation. They are in no conceivable sense qualified in a professional or ethical manner to stand beside the president and offer him legal advice. Yet there they are, and each day they remain there, they debase the highest offices of state one degree more.

In the financial domain, the picture looks much the same. Much has been made of Trump’s decision to staff his administration with a truly remarkable number of former Goldman Sachs bankers: Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin, Jim Donovan, Jim Clayton, and Dina Powell, among others (Steve Bannon also once worked at Goldman, but his proposal to raise the highest tax bracket may place him at odds with the other Goldman alumni). This sort of chumminess with the nation’s most powerful investment bank is not unprecedented in recent American history: Clinton and Bush had their fair share of Wall Streeters, too, and Obama raised more money from Wall Street donors than any candidate in history. But, given the moral tone of the Trump administration overall, it seems plausible that Cohn and Mnuchin, architects of Trump’s economic policy and the coming tax-reform bill, will attempt to do something that directly benefits themselves. When figures as revered as McMaster are publicly humiliated — when our chief public servants willingly surrender their dignity as the price of continuing in their post — we have crossed a certain line, beyond which practically anything seems possible.

An entire department is pushed to the wayside, made subject to the caprices of the man in charge.

The State Department is seeing something similar as well. There, Rex Tillerson is leading a full-fledged overhaul of the way the department does business, instituting drastic cuts and leaving scores of crucial positions unfilled. (As Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center think tank, phrased it in March, the State Department is a “ghost ship.”) That is behind the scenes; in public, Tillerson is apparently a nonentity, running a diplomacy at odds with that of the president. The ongoing Qatar crisis makes this most obvious: Tillerson takes a moderate line, favoring a deescalation of tensions and a mediated solution to the Saudi–Qatar dispute, while Trump, the true wielder of power, simply overrules him in a tweet: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.” Again, as in the case of McMaster, an entire department is pushed to the wayside, made subject to the caprices of the man in charge.

American government will recover. The halls once haunted by John Quincy Adams and William Seward and Dean Acheson will not banish their noble spirit in a mere four — or perhaps eight — years. But I do wonder about how the continual debasement of public service will affect government’s ability to attract the best and brightest talent America can offer. The public sector has long attracted intelligent people who wish to have an impact on the world — to make their country, in a much-overused phrase, a better place. When the White House is occupied by sycophants and callous operatives, and when the man sitting in the Oval Office blithely imposes his own will anyway, the attraction of entering government dims. In the long run, we may all be the worse off for it.


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