The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump’s Insubordination Problem

I wrote about Trump officials distancing themselves from Trump today for Politico:

The new measure of power in Washington is how far you can go criticizing the president at whose pleasure you serve. The hangers-on and junior players must do it furtively and anonymously. Only a principal like Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson or James Mattis can do it out in the open and get away with it.

First, it was chief economic adviser Cohn saying in an interview that the administration — i.e., Donald J. Trump — must do a better job denouncing hate groups. Then, it was Secretary of State Tillerson suggesting in a stunning interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News that the rest of the government speaks for American values, but not necessarily the president. Finally, Secretary of Defense Mattis contradicted without a moment’s hesitation a Trump tweet saying we are done talking with North Korea.

In a more normal time, in a more normal administration, any of these would be a firing offense (although, in Mattis’ defense, he more accurately stated official U.S. policy than the president did). Tillerson, in particular, should have been told before he was off the set of Fox News on Sunday that he was only going to be allowed to return to the seventh floor of the State Department to clean out his desk.

The fact that this hasn’t happened is an advertisement of Trump’s precarious standing, broadcast by officials he himself selected for positions of significant power and prestige. A more typical scenario is that a president loses credibility in a foreign crisis when an adversary defies him, or in a domestic political confrontation when the opposition deals him a stinging defeat. Not at the hands of his own team.

This isn’t the work of the deep state, career bureaucrats maneuvering or leaking from somewhere deep within the agencies. This is the shallow state, the very top layer of the government, operating in broad daylight, in fact wanting to be seen and heard differentiating themselves from the president of the United States.

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