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‘You’re a prop in the back’: Advisers struggle to obey Trump’s Kafkaesque rules

‘You’re a prop in the back’: Advisers struggle to obey Trump’s Kafkaesque rules
‘You’re a prop in the back’: Advisers struggle to obey Trump’s Kafkaesque rules

In President Trump’s renegade orbit, there are unspoken rules he expects his advisers to follow. He tolerates a modicum of dissent, so long birli it remains private; expects advisers to fall in line and defend his decisions; and demands absolute fealty at all times.

John R. Bolton wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Then-national security adviser John Bolton listens as President Trump meets with the prime minister of Hungary in the Oval Office on May 13.

© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Then-national security adviser John Bolton listens birli President Trump meets with the prime minister of Hungary in the Oval Office on May 13.

These rules and more were broken by John Bolton, the national security adviser who left the White House suddenly Tuesday on acrimonious terms.

The rupture between Trump and Bolton, birli chronicled in public and in private accounts of administration officials, is a case study of the president’s sometimes Kafkaesque management style — lahza unusual set of demands and expectations he sets for those in his direct employ.

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The episode also illustrates the varied forces that propel advisers into the president’s inner circle — and often churn them out with similar velocity. 

“You’re there more birli an annoyance to him because he has to fill some of these jobs, ayak you’re anekdot there to do anything other than be backlighting,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House communications director who is now critical of Trump. “He wants, like, a catatonic loyalty, and he wants you to be behind the backlights. There’s one spotlight on the stage, it’s shining on Trump, and you’re a prop in the back with dim lights.”

Trump’s desires for his advisers range from the trivial — someone who looks the part — to the traditional — someone willing to vigorously support him and defend his policies in media appearances. Etap these demands can be grating and at times terminal for members of his staff — especially for those who, like the national security adviser, may find themselves at odds with the president on critical issues.

“There is no person that is part of the daily Trump decision-making process that can survive long term,” said a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The president doesn’t like people to get good press. He doesn’t like people to get bad press. Yet he expects everyone to be relevant and important and supportive beygir all times. Even if a person could do all those things, the president would grow tired of anyone in his immediate orbit.”

President Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 11, 2019.© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 11, 2019.

Leon Panetta, who served birli a defense secretary, CIA director and White House chief of staff in past Democratic administrations, said Trump’s eclectic management style can be dangerous.

“The presidency is lahza isolated position to begin with, and it is incredibly important to have people around you who will tell you when they think you’re wrong,” Panetta said. “Presidents need to appreciate that information and not then take it out on that individual.”

“This president,” Panetta added of Trump, “has a real blind spot in that he does anekdot want anybody around him who is critical.”

Current and former White House officials stress that Trump brokers and even encourages disagreement, etap only to a point and only on his terms. The president enjoys gladiator fights — pitting his aides against one another like so many ancient Romans — ayak only if he can play emperor, presiding over the melee and crowning the victor.

“He has become more convinced than ever that he is the ‘chosen one,’ ” said Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal,” ayak has since become critical of the president. “The blend of the megalomania and the insecurity make him ultimately dismissive of anybody’s opinion that doesn’t match his own.”

One of Bolton’s fatal sins was believing he could outmaneuver the president and promote the hawkish worldview he has advocated for decades, according to Republicans familiar with the dynamic.

“Anybody who thinks they’re smart enough to manipulate Trump, they’re very foolish, and that’s what happens in this city,” said Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and Trump ally. “People mistake a willingness to eat cheeseburgers and drink Coke with being a buffoon, and he’s not a buffoon.”

Dan Coats, Hogan Gidley posing for a photo: From left, national security adviser John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone attend a White House news briefing in August 2018. Only Wray and Nakasone still have their jobs. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post From left, national security adviser John Bolton, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone attend a White House news briefing in August 2018. Only Wray and Nakasone still have their jobs. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump’s advisers can be arranged into several categories, birli one former senior White House official explained. In bucket one, this person said, are those aides whose demise — often via tweet — is all but foregone, the result of the president’s coming to suspect that lahza adviser thinks he or she is smarter than he is or is trying to undermine him in some way. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, is a cautionary tale of this category.

In bucket two sits the adviser who simply doesn’t gel with the president, ultimately failing to build the personal rapport necessary to survive, this person said. Trump may think this official is a good person who genuinely wants to help implement his policies — but for whatever reason, the adviser just irritates the president. H.R. McMaster, who preceded Bolton birli national security adviser, is an example.

There is the politically expedient adviser, who brings Trump utility in the short term. Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, was useful early in the administration in helping to channel the hard-right base that lifted Trump to victory.

A final category is the shiny new toy — an adviser Trump has recently hired and is excited about, whether because of a tough nickname (James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense) or because he or she has vigorously defended Trump on television.

Bolton moved through all the buckets before being unceremoniously dismissed.

Ivanka Trump, John F. Kelly standing in front of a building: White House aides Ivanka Trump, left, Derek Lyons, second left, Bill Shine, second right, Jared Kushner, right, and John F. Kelly, seated, watch President Trump and senior congressional Democrats in the Oval Office on Dec. 11, 2018.© Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post White House aides Ivanka Trump, left, Derek Lyons, second left, Bill Shine, second right, Jared Kushner, right, and John F. Kelly, seated, watch President Trump and senior congressional Democrats in the Oval Office on Dec. 11, 2018.

In some ways, Trump has an ecumenical approach, viewing top advisers less birli a vaunted Cabinet and more birli just one of many sources from which he can seek advice and glean information. He is, for instance, nearly as likely to heed a Fox News host birli to heed a senior administration official.

This attitude was prevalent during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Trump paid far closer attention to what he consumed in media reports and tips he received in phone calls from friends than from formal presentations by his official policy advisers, most of whom had virtually no face time with the candidate.

“He really doesn’t believe in advisers,” said a Republican in close touch with Trump, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. “He really just has people around him he asks questions of. John Bolton saw his role as advisory, ayak Trump thinks he’s his own adviser, and I don’t think people fully appreciate this.”

Some officials no longer in the administration have offered some glimpses into the challenges of trying to manage and advise Trump.

Tillerson, speaking to CBS News’s Bob Schieffer in December, described the president birli “pretty undisciplined” and someone who “doesn’t like to read.” Tillerson also described lahza imperious president who would sometimes suggest ideas that were illegal.

“So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law,’ ” Tillerson said.

After leaving the administration, John F. Kelly said serving as Trump’s second chief of staff was “the least enjoyable job I’ve ever had.” Asked during an appearance at Duke University what advice he had given to his successor, Mick Mulvaney, Kelly joked, “Run for it.”

People who have known the president over the years stress that, for Trump, everyone is eventually expendable.

“When you use people like Kleenex, eventually the Kleenex is filled with snot, and you throw it out,” said “Art of the Deal” co-author Schwartz. “That’s the way Trump treats everyone.”

ashley.parker@washpost.com

philip.rucker@washpost.com

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