Honesty is Loyalty

Lordy, please prove me wrong.

By this point in the administration I hoped to be writing about President Trump’s policies, political strategies and the application of private sector skills to solve the challenges facing the United States. Although I did not vote for Trump, because he lacks the character necessary to be president, I have tried to keep an open mind about the possibilities.

Four of our last six presidents were governors before coming to the White House and a fifth, President Obama, had very limited experience in federal office before taking the job. George H.W. Bush, the most qualified of the group, lasted only one term. So it can be argued, Trump is not the first president in recent history to come to office with less than an ideal resume. It is not unreasonable to think that, surrounded by aides with strong backgrounds in government, experience on Capitol Hill, or experience on the world stage, President Trump could manage by listening carefully to the advice he receives and making good decisions based on his stated “America first” principles. Unfortunately that has not been the case. We are instead witnessing a series of rolling disasters which seems to get worse with each passing day.

President Trump’s Friday news conference with the president of Romania is the latest proof. During his performance, the president made a series of political, diplomatic and legal mistakes that will keep his administration off balance for weeks and further impair any policy goals he may have.

  • Trump asked Congress, the Washington press corps and the country to believe him over former FBI Director James Comey. We know President Trump and his staff are willing to lie on a daily basis. What we know about Comey is that his fidelity to the truth is so strong it has twisted him into decisions that some consider indefensible.
  • Trump would not answer directly whether his conversations with Comey were recorded, exposing himself to further inquiry by congressional investigative committees and the special prosecutor who is at the beginning of a probe that may lead in many directions unfavorable to Trump and his family.
  • Trump offered to testify about his interactions with Comey under oath. From a public relations perspective there is no danger in offering to tell the truth under oath(if we assume the president is telling the truth, doing so under oath comes at no additional cost). From a legal perspective however, this is a problem for Trump, because he has a tendency to exaggerate — and yes lie — which could lead to charges of lying to Congress or federal investigators.
  • As a side dish, the president managed to contradict his secretary of state, who was seated directly in front of him, about an on-going crisis involving the nation of Qatar and its neighbors.
  • The president’s outlandish statements about the Comey controversy and the existence of a White House taping system, led the press corps to become unruly during Friday’s event, creating poli-optics that diminished Trump’s already limited presidential stature. Trump looked like a petulant child caught in a lie.
  • He whined about the television networks that “treat him unfairly.”
  • The Romanian president looked embarrassed by the scene and any American watching should have been equally embarrassed by Trump’s behavior.

Other than that, it was a great twenty minutes for President Trump. At least the sun was out.

This is where we are ladies and gentlemen. We have a White House in disarray. A president who is being represented by outside criminal defense counsel. A president with no recognizable agenda. As a practical matter, his attention is divided between being president and keeping himself out of legal jeopardy. The full focus of any president should be on the job of representing the American people. There is room for nothing else.

There is only one way to stop this train from barreling down hill into a ravine. The White House staff, the president’s high level appointees, and Republicans in Congress must intervene.

Convincing should not be necessary at this point, but the president’s team must immediately convince him that his management style does not work and will not work in the White House. There are proven models offered by previous administrations that can save the Trump administration from the current chaos that threatens its viability and puts our nation at risk.

In simple terms, the model begins with the president’s leadership vision. Let’s assume that means putting America first in foreign policy and making investments at home to grow the economy. With that understanding, the leaders of the various federal government agencies appointed by Trump, should be let loose to pursue the president’s vision. Issues requiring a presidential decision should be presented to the president as a fully formed list of options along with probable consequences. From that list, the president could then make well informed, reasoned decisions.

Presidential communication needs to be similarly managed. America cannot have two foreign policies; one articulated by the State Department and one by President Trump. The same is true across government. Trump needs to be made to understand that the free-wheeling, one step away from the truth style of campaigning that brought him to the White House, does not work when you are responsible for leading the nation. Trump thinks he is his own best messenger. He is wrong. He is a horrible political communicator and he needs to be told.

Congressional Republicans need to stop protecting the president. House Speaker Paul Ryan embarrassed himself this week by suggesting that Trump’s efforts to shutdown the Russia probe were due to Trump’s lack of experience in the ways of Washington. Ryan, and other leading Republicans, have a duty to meet with Trump, explain to him what he is doing wrong and offer to help, even if that means sending their own experienced staff to the White House to save this president from himself. Until they challenge the president directly on this point their own policy agenda will be stalled as the news media focuses all its attention on the crisis in the White House.

The current White House staff has a similar responsibility. Loyalty is often a mis-defined virtue in political operations. Elected leaders tend to view loyalty as meaning staff and supporters are loyal first to the politician they work for or support. This often manifests itself in public statements that seem divorced from reality.

Following Comey’s testimony this week, Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to react to Comey’s assertion — under oath — that the president and the White House staff had lied about the reasons for his firing and the state of affairs at the FBI. Her response, would be considered loyal from Trump’s perspective, but it was disloyal to the American people:

“I can definitively say the president is not a liar,” she lied.

By this point in the Trump administration, her assertion is so demonstrably false that I do not feel compelled to offer specific contradictory evidence, because it is so widely available.

Of course, Sanders was also defending herself, because it was she who stood in the White House press room shortly after Comey’s firing and claimed he was let go because of the “atrocities” he had committed as the leader of the FBI. She further claimed the agency was so badly managed that dozens of line FBI agents had reached out to her personally to thank President Trump for letting Comey go. She offered no proof of this claim and never has. The notion that rank and file FBI agents would reach out specifically to Sanders on such an issue is laughable, but this kind of fantastical story-telling to protect President Trump is the kind of loyalty he apparently requires.

I can offer this advice to employees of the Trump White House: When you realize most of your time is being spent protecting the honor of your boss instead of working for the people he represents, it is time to intervene to set things right, or resign. Using 24 hours as the standard, it is clear more than half the administration’s time, on any given day, is being devoted to the pure political survival of the principal, leaving very little time for the rest of us. The staff must intervene, even if that means putting their own careers at risk. Be loyal to the country before the man.

The Trump administration is on a trajectory for failure. No one close to him has been able to convince him his plan is not working. No one, in the White House, or on Capitol Hill, has shown the courage necessary to tell him the truth, or offer him an alternative path. His administration is under investigation by a special prosecutor. That investigation will divide his attention for at least the next year and may very well uncover new allegations which may threaten Trump, his family, or others in his orbit.

By extension, Trump’s problems hurt the Republican Party. Each time a Republican congressional leader stretches credulity to defend the president’s indefensible actions they damage their own credibility and ability to lead.

One definition of corruption is the loss of integrity. For his own good and for the good of the country, the president must be challenged by the people who are closest to him. Honesty is the highest form of loyalty in politics and in life. What we are seeing from the Trump administration is a distorted version of loyalty that is corroding our government from the top.

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