Sometimes, Aides Save a President From Himself

Trump-McGahn incident detailed in Mueller report shows presidents need staff around them who won’t just blindly do their bidding

When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.

On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.

Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.

Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.

The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.

Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.

Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”

Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.

Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.

In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.

Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.

Mr. Trump also needs aides who will challenge him, as they have when he sought to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria, fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and blow up existing trade treaties. In the wake of the departure of Mr. McGahn last fall, as well as the exits of Chief of Staff John Kelly, economic adviser Gary Cohn, staff secretary Rob Porter, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, the question is whether he has enough of them.

Trump’s presidency hinges on this choice

On one point above all, they were unanimous: The president cannot govern effectively, they said, without a chief of staff empowered to execute his agenda.

.. the president cannot govern effectively without a chief of staff who is first among equals. The chief wears many hats. But he is above all the person the president counts on to turn his policies into reality and, when necessary, to tell him what he does not want to hear.

.. Since the days of Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, every president has learned, often the hard way, that he cannot govern effectively without empowering a chief of staff as his gatekeeper. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, tried to run the White House according to a model he called the “spokes of the wheel” — with a handful of advisers reporting directly to him, at the center. The result was chaos

.. Carter, horrified by the Watergate scandal personified by Haldeman, chose not to appoint a chief at all; but 2½ years into his term, unable to prioritize his agenda and bogged down in minutia, he realized his mistake and named Hamilton Jordan.

.. Panetta set the stage for Clinton’s reelection. He did it by telling Clinton hard truths.

.. Pitting advisers against one another may work in a family real estate empire, but modern history shows that it is a formula for failure in the presidency. Like Trump, Ronald Reagan wanted to shake up the establishment, but he intuited something Trump has yet to grasp: As a Washington outsider, he needed a consummate insider to get things done.

He found that person in James A. Baker III, a smooth-as-silk 50-year-old Texas lawyer. Baker knew what was doable on Capitol Hill and was not afraid to tell the president what he did not want to hear.

.. No competent chief would allow an executive order on immigration (a core Trump campaign promise) to be dispatched without vetting it with the departments involved.

It’s also hard to imagine Baker or Panetta allowing a president to squander his political capital on an ill-fated health-care bill with almost no chance of passing the Senate.

.. Priebus’s greatest failure has been his unwillingness to confront the president with the painful truth.

.. He cannot succeed as president if he is surrounded by sycophants.

.. Trump can continue to try to govern by himself — his gut instincts unchecked, his advisers warring, his executive orders mired in the courts and legislation dead on Capitol Hill. Or he can empower a chief of staff to take charge