Jules Witcover: Self-destruction in Trumpland
WASHINGTON — On the heels of the resignation of Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, President Donald Trump has responded with the favorite theme song of his own greatness, and how others clamor to be part of it.
During a press conference with the Swedish prime minister, he bragged of his place of employment: “It’s a great place to be working. Many, many people want every single job. I read where, oh gee, so many people don’t want to work for Trump. … Believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House. They want a piece of the Oval Office. They want a piece of the West Wing.”
Maybe so at first, but once they get there, many have seemed in the first 13 months of his presidency to be in a great rush to get out, amid all the chaos and craziness of Trump’s constantly changeable leadership.
According to a Washington Post nose count of 23 people sworn in to upper-level posts at the start of the Trump administration, 15 have left, voluntarily or not, or have indicated plans to leave, while only eight have stuck it out so far.
Among the most prominent individuals who have gone through the personnel meat-grinder before departing have been former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former Communications Director Hope Hicks, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter.
Other lesser-known figures have fled or been kicked out, and in various departments such as State, key positions have gone unfilled, including ambassadorships. This lapse has been a serious one, considering that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is himself a novice in the field of diplomacy, despite many foreign policy connections in a career as CEO of ExxonMobil.
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, a career Republican pollster, has continued as a principal Trump spokesperson even after being accused of violating the Hatch Act for partisan political activities last year in the Senate race in Alabama. She openly opposed the eventual winner, Democrat Doug Jones, and supported Republican Roy Moore.
Also under fire as prospective violators of nepotism under the so-called emoluments clause of Article I, Section 9 are Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Both are Trump White House senior officials drawing no government salary.
The clause specifically holds that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
Such language in the Constitution might seem to bar these Trump relatives by birth or marriage, although the word “nepotism” does not appear in the emoluments clause. The fact they have business connections with foreign powers does not necessarily or automatically prove gift-giving under the clause.
Shortly before the Trump inauguration, three prominent ethics lawyers wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution musing on the potential outcome of an application of the clause. “It is plain that a President Trump would be subject to removal from office for the intentional abuse of power that this manifestly unconstitutional intermingling of private and public concerns would entail,” it said.
“We cannot anticipate how the omnipresent prospect of such a disgraceful end would distort the dynamics of a President Trump’s ability to serve the domestic and national security interests of the nation,” the paper concluded. “But that this looming shadow over his time in office would grievously disserve the people of the United States is beyond doubt.”
The observation did, however, anticipate a very possible impeachment of Trump himself for abuse of power, whether via the emoluments clause, some more heinous unspecified “high crimes and misdemeanors” involved in the Russian meddling investigation or some major financial misdeed.
The thoroughness and tenacity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicates he is leaving no stone unturned in his mission to demonstrate that his quest for wrongdoing is neither hoax nor witch hunt, as Trump continues to insist. Whatever it turns out to be, whether it rises to the level of an impeachable offense by a sitting president is the critical question now.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.