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.
President Trump has unabashedly hitched his political fortunes to a rising stock market. Now, with stock prices in retreat, he has become increasingly fixated on the idea that one man is to blame for the recent rout: Jerome H. Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve.
After the Fed raised its benchmark interest rate on Wednesday, the fifth consecutive quarterly increase, Mr. Trump fretted to aides that Mr. Powell would “turn me into Hoover,” a reference to the man who was president in the early years of the Great Depression.
Mr. Trump has said choosing Mr. Powell for the Fed job last year was the worst mistake of his presidency, and he has asked aides whether he has the power to fire him.
But the volatile stock market, which just posted its worst week since 2008, is falling in part because of Mr. Trump’s own policies, including
- an escalating trade war with China,
- a shutdown of the federal government and
- the fading effects of the $1.5 trillion tax cut Mr. Trump ushered in at the end of 2017.
While the Fed’s rate increases have upset investors — who seem to have a darker view of economic growth than the central bank does — some analysts said Mr. Trump’s musings about the Fed would only exacerbate anxieties.
“If Powell gets terminated, what we’ve seen happen in the markets in the past few weeks will look like a walk in the park,” David Rosenberg, chief economist at Gluskin Sheff, said in an email on Sunday. “The dollar will go into a tailspin, and even confidence in the Treasury market will erode, especially among foreign creditors.”
Mr. Trump’s economic advisers scrambled over the weekend to reassure markets that Mr. Trump was not, in fact, planning to fire Mr. Powell. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted what he said was a quote from Mr. Trump accepting that he did not even have the power to do so.
Mick Mulvaney, the incoming acting White House chief of staff, implied on Sunday that Mr. Trump had, in fact, inquired about removing Mr. Powell, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that the president “now realizes he does not have the authority.” But Mr. Mulvaney added that he had heard this from Mr. Mnuchin, not from Mr. Trump.
.. Mr. Mnuchin has worked in recent days to obtain Mr. Trump’s assurance that he would not remove Mr. Powell, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. But that person cautioned that Mr. Trump could change his mind. The person noted Mr. Trump has a tendency to nurse grudges even when he temporarily sets a subject aside.
.. Some economists argue the Fed should continue its stimulus campaign to drive up employment and wages. They note that the Fed is about to undershoot its 2 percent inflation target for the seventh consecutive year, suggesting there is no need to step on the brakes.
.. In fact, during his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump accused the Fed of getting political, saying that the bank’s chairwoman at the time, Janet L. Yellen, should be “ashamed” for keeping interest rates low — a move he said was meant to help President Barack Obama.But it is far from clear such a decision would serve the president’s purpose. A replacement for Mr. Powell would require Senate confirmation, and this person would join a policymaking committee that voted unanimously for the December rate increase. That committee also might be inclined, on future rate decisions, to demonstrate its independence from the president.
.. Mr. Trump also chose three of the other four members of the Fed’s board, all of whom joined Mr. Powell in voting for all four 2018 rate increases.In conversations with friends and advisers, Mr. Trump has acknowledged responsibility for the selection of Mr. Powell. He told Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation, that it was “one of the worst choices I’ve ever made,” according to Mr. Moore.Some of Mr. Trump’s economic advisers have encouraged him to remove Mr. Powell, arguing that the decision would reverse recent stock declines.
Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said presidents had often tried to shape Fed policy, but the current episode stood apart because Mr. Trump appeared to be acting against his own interest in a stable economy.
“I think what is the unusual part here is that it seems the president has created the crisis,” she said. “His intervention certainly seems to be making things worse for him and worse for the Fed and worse for the economy. It’s just very shortsighted, and we’re not used to that.”
Sorry, investors, but there is no sanity clause.
Two years ago, after the shock of Donald Trump’s election, financial markets briefly freaked out, then quickly recovered. In effect, they decided that while Trump was manifestly unqualified for the job, temperamentally and intellectually, it wouldn’t matter. He might talk the populist talk, but he’d walk the plutocratic walk. He might be erratic and uninformed, but wiser heads would keep him from doing anything too stupid.
In other words, investors convinced themselves that they had a deal: Trump might sound off, but he wouldn’t really get to make policy. And, hey, taxes on corporations and the wealthy would go down.
But now, just in time for Christmas, people are realizing that there was no such deal — or at any rate, that there wasn’t a sanity clause. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Put an unstable, ignorant, belligerent man in the Oval Office, and he will eventually do crazy things.
To be clear, voters have been aware for some time that government by a bad man is bad government. That’s why Democrats won a historically spectacular majority of the popular vote in the midterms. Even the wealthy, who have been the prime beneficiaries of Trump policies, are unhappy: A CNBC survey finds that millionaires, even Republican millionaires, have turned sharply against the tweeter in chief.
.. The reality that presidential unfitness matters for investors seems to have started setting in only about three weeks (and around 4,000 points on the Dow) ago.
- First came the realization that Trump’s much-hyped deal with China existed only in his imagination. Then came
- his televised meltdown in a meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,
- his abrupt pullout from Syria,
- his firing of Jim Mattis and
- his shutdown of the government because Congress won’t cater to his edifice complex and build a pointless wall. And now there’s
- buzz that he wants to fire Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Oh, and along the way we learned that Trump has been engaging in raw obstruction of justice, pressuring his acting attorney general (who is himself a piece of work) over the Mueller investigation as the tally of convictions, confessions and forced resignations mounts.
.. And even trade war might not do that much harm, as long as it’s focused mainly on China, which is only one piece of U.S. trade. The really big economic risk was that Trump might break up Nafta, the North American trade agreement: U.S. manufacturing is so deeply integrated with production in Canada and Mexico that this would have been highly disruptive. But he settled for changing the agreement’s name while leaving its structure basically intact, and the remaining risks don’t seem that large.
.. Now imagine how this administration team might cope with a real economic setback, whatever its source. Would Trump look for solutions or refuse to accept responsibility and focus mainly on blaming other people? Would his Treasury secretary and chief economic advisers coolly analyze the problem and formulate a course of action, or would they respond with a combination of sycophancy to the boss and denials that anything was wrong? What do you think?