Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Faced with new court filings by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating his ties to Russia and other matters, our Distractor-in-Chief began Friday with a burst a tweets and two big nominations. As President Donald Trump proposed William Barr for attorney general and Heather Nauert for ambassador to the United Nations, he seemed intent on capturing our attention. It didn’t work.
The man who loves to control the news cycle was outflanked by revelations connected to two men who have, despite serving in the Trump administration, appeared to resist his corrupting influence.
First, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson told an interviewer that Trump had asked him to commit illegal acts, is undisciplined and “doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things.” Next the press reported that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is expected to quit any minute, has been questioned by the special counsel. These startling developments drew new attention to the odor of incompetence and corruption that has hung over Trump ever since he took office.
Tillerson and Kelly, and Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen represent diametrically opposed responses to the Mafia-style way of leading that the President seems to prefer.
Tillerson and Kelly signed on with Trump after sterling careers guided by higher values and did not succumb to demands for omerta-style loyalty. Cohen and Manafort, both now admitted criminals, had never distinguished themselves as honorable men and presumably found it easy to do the big boss’s bidding.
Nothing in this comparison suggests that Kelly and Tillerson were goody-goody types. A former Marine Corps general, Kelly came to the White House with combat experience and the toughness to bring discipline to a President who is short on focus and self-control. Before being tapped by Trump, Tillerson was canny enough to rise to the top of ExxonMobil, where he even did business with the murderous Vladimir Putin because his company was active in Russia. (Putin gave Tillerson a friendship medal.) Now we learn that when he was at the State Department, Tillerson pushed back against Trump’s attempt to corrupt him, refusing to act on orders he believed violated the law, according to his account to CBS reporter Bob Schieffer at a Houston event Thursday.
As pragmatic as Tillerson and Kelly may have been, they did not subscribe to Trump’s do-anything-I-command ethos – and that put them on the outs with their boss. Tillerson struggled to serve the country properly right up to the point when he was informed, while traveling for the President on a foreign mission, that he was no longer welcomed in the administration. As Kelly reportedly prepares to leave, he enjoys the same respect as a man committed to the office of the President even if the actual President has, according to reports, stopped speaking to him.
The fact is that in Trump circles, the relatively decent ones – like the chief of staff, former secretary of state and outgoing United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley – appear to have to struggle to remain. Indeed, ever the good soldier, Haley has refused to say anything negative about Trump, but it’s noteworthy that she resigned soon after the delegates at the United Nations laughed out loud while her boss was addressing the General Assembly.
Trump’s less noble allies, like Cohen and Manafort, show little of the strength of character found in Kelly, Tillerson and Haley. Instead of resisting the corruption that is so common to Trump’s endeavors they tried to play the game.
In the decade-plus when he was Donald Trump’s lawyer, Cohen advertised himself as Trump’s “fixer” and a man who would “take a bullet” for the boss. This is the attitude of someone who is comfortable with mob-style corruption, and it is a sign of Cohen’s weakness that he played his role so well that he committed crimes he has confessed to federal authorities. To his credit, Cohen is now cooperating with authorities and doesn’t seem to be angling for a Presidential pardon.
Manafort’s corruption is like Cohen’s, but apparently of a higher order of magnitude. For years he proudly served in what some regarded as the “torturer’s lobby” in Washington, representing authoritarian regimes from around the world. Manafort’s reputation was so shady that he had ceased to be employable as a consultant in American elections until Trump came along. When he had served his purposes, Trump shoved him aside in favor of another campaign chief. Now he stands convicted of so many federal crimes he could spend the rest of his life in prison. He seems far more committed to the Trump mobster style, and surely hopes that by doing what he can to help the President, he might get a pardon. Trump has said the idea is “not off the table.”
The President has the power to pardon anyone, but he cannot undo the damage he has already inflicted. Some like Tillerson, Kelly and Haley will recover and be regarded as people who more-or-less tried to help their country and were wounded in the process. Manafort’s ignominy is assured. Cohen may have salvaged at least a part of his own reputation by helping Mueller. And everyone else who works for this President should be guarding theirs.