May 20, 2017
A Bit of History: What Kind of Loyalty Does a President Need?
PHOTOGRAPH BY WALLY MCNAMEE / CORBIS / GETTY
On April, 1965, the leaders of India and Pakistan, nations then on the brink of war, cancelled meetings with President Lyndon Johnson, and L.B.J. thought he knew why. While flying to Texas aboard Air Force One, he huddled with his speechwriter, Dick Goodwin. “Do you know there are some disloyal Kennedy people over at the State Department who are trying to get me; that’s why they stirred things up?” Johnson asked. “I didn’t know that,” Goodwin replied. “Well, there are,” Johnson said, “They didn’t get me this time, but they’ll keep trying.” Johnson’s obsession with his political rival, Robert Kennedy, had, by that time, become so overpowering—and his insistence on “all-out loyalty” so pronounced—that it was bogging down the Presidential-appointments process and driving good men out of government. “We cannot afford to lose them,” Harry McPherson, the White House counsel, warned Johnson in a bravely blunt memo. “Neither, in my opinion, can we afford to give them a polygraph-loyalty test. . . . If the word gets around that one has to put on horse-blinders to work for you, you will probably come out with a bunch of clipped yes-men who are afraid of their own shadows and terrified of yours.”
Jared Kushner–35-year Old Advisor to President Donald Trump
That advice would apply in today’s White House, too, though it’s unlikely that President Trump would welcome it any more than L.B.J. did. (He nearly fired McPherson.) Trump’s chief complaint about his own yes-men seems to be that they don’t say yes energetically enough. The people who serve at the pleasure of the current President are, according to numerous sources, causing him displeasure. Trump, in fact, is said to be enraged by the lot of them—even his adviser-in-law, Jared Kushner—for their “incompetence,” and for “tooting their own horns.” Reports say that Trump is considering a big shakeup. He has already, of course, shaken up the F.B.I., firing its director, James Comey, last Tuesday, for a multitude of asserted sins—disloyalty not least among them. A detailed account in the Times described a one-on-one dinner at the White House in January, shortly after the Inauguration, in which Trump, three times, asked Comey to pledge his loyalty to him. Comey, according to the Times, dodged, and offered the President his honesty instead. (In light of the F.B.I.’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, honesty must be what Trump didn’t want from Comey.) In recent days, Trump and his staff have been insisting that if the subject of loyalty came up at that dinner—and, mind you, they’re not saying it did—it would only have concerned Comey’s loyalty to the U.S.A. “I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States, is important,” Trump said on Saturday, in an interview with Fox News. “You know, I mean, it depends on how you define loyalty.”
Putting aside (if one can) Trump and his purposes, every President needs his staff, his Cabinet, and—to a reasonable extent—his party to stand by and stick with him, for an obvious reason: without loyalty to the President and his agenda, an Administration lacks a center of gravity. But loyalty, as Trump suggests, means many things. How a President defines loyalty says a good deal about how he leads and who he is.
Bobby Kennedy and JFK
John F. Kennedy, for example, selected his unquestionably loyal brother, Robert, as Attorney General and installed members of the so-called Irish Mafia across the government. But as he filled out the rest of his Administration he showed little interest in whether someone had voted for him. He wanted to build, he said, “a ministry of talent”; also, given the narrowness of his victory over Richard Nixon, in 1960, he wanted a few Republicans on his team. This caused Bobby Kennedy some distress, especially when J.F.K. looked to appoint Douglas Dillon—who had served in the Eisenhower Administration—as his Secretary of the Treasury. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recalled in “A Thousand Days,” his account of those times, R.F.K. “kept asking what would happen if Dillon resigned in a few months with a blast against the administration’s financial policies. He warned his brother that they were putting themselves in the hands of a Republican who had no reason for loyalty to them and might well betray them.” The President-elect shrugged. “Oh, I don’t care about those things,” he said. “All I want to know is: is he able? and will he go along with the program?” In the end, he allowed Bobby to extract from Dillon a pledge (unnecessary, it turned out) that if Dillon ever felt compelled to resign, he would go quietly. But J.F.K.’s nonchalance was not a pose. He expected (and for the most part received) the devotion of his Cabinet and staff. But he knew that he needed, above all, their candor; he needed them to tell him the truth, to give dispassionate and sometimes divergent advice, and then, of course, to back his decisions. Honest debate, in Kennedy’s view, was an act of loyalty; mindless affirmation was not
Nixon and Kissinger
Both L.B.J. and Nixon, by contrast, were obsessed with loyalty. They brooded about it, demanded it, doubted it, and never seemed to find enough of it. After Kennedy’s assassination, in November, 1963, L.B.J. tried hard to retain the Kennedy men, even though many had treated him cruelly when he was Vice-President. Swallowing his pride, Johnson told them, “I need you more than President Kennedy needed you.” Nearly all agreed to stay on, for a while; some came to respect Johnson’s boundless energy and his success in breathing new life into Kennedy’s legislative program, which had been stalled on Capitol Hill. But he did not win their loyalty. This accrued—without reservation—to Bobby Kennedy. Insecure and increasingly bitter, L.B.J. saw sedition everywhere; aides like Goodwin and Bill Moyers began to wonder whether he was clinically paranoid. Johnson’s definition of loyalty grew extreme, absolute: “I don’t want loyalty,” he told an adviser about a potential appointee. “I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket.” Nixon, for his part, was so suspicious of his own aides—who were, he believed, hurting his reputation, undercutting his aims, and, in the case of Henry Kissinger, taking credit for his best ideas—that he installed a taping system in the White House so that he could, someday, hold them to account. Nixon wrote in his memoirs that the tapes “were my best insurance against the unforeseeable future. I was prepared to believe that others, even people close to me, would turn against me.” After his reëlection, Nixon told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to clean house and hire some new aides—they didn’t have to be brilliant or even all that competent, Nixon said, just loyal.
Donald Trump is, “like, this great loyalty freak,” by his own telling. “I put the people who are loyal to me on a high pedestal and take care of them very well,” he wrote in “Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life,” a sort of self-help book for budding blowhards that Trump produced with a co-author, Bill Zanker, in 2007. He has long identified loyalty as the paramount quality he looks for in employees. An article in Politico last July, examining Trump’s approach to management, found that he earned the allegiance of some employees through a combination of “praise, pay, and fear,” and by promoting “trusted loyalists” who often lacked “obvious qualifications.”
But this model, which may or may not have worked as advertised in Trump’s businesses, has proved a disaster in the Presidency. Across the executive branch, a truly staggering number of offices—at Homeland Security, at the Treasury, at the State Department—remain unoccupied, in part because Trump’s team cannot find enough “reliable” loyalists to fill the positions. Trump and his team have also pushed people out of jobs when their loyalty has come into question: in February, Shermichael Singleton, a senior aide to Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was fired and marched out of the building after a Trump adviser uncovered an op-ed, critical of Trump, that Singleton had written during the campaign. Aides who do pass the loyalty test know that their hold on Trump’s allegiance is and will remain tenuous. David Rennie of The Economist was one of four reporters who met with the President in the Oval Office on May 4th; the following week, Rennie described the atmosphere as “kind of like being in a royal palace several hundred years ago, with people coming in and out, trying to catch the ear of the king. . . . The role of some pretty senior figures, including Cabinet secretaries, was to chime in and agree with whatever the president had just said, rather than offering candid advice.”
On the continuum between with-the-program loyalty and pecker-in-my-pocket loyalty, Trump clearly wants the latter. The Comey dinner—a botched ring-kissing ceremony—is wholly consistent with Trump’s understanding of loyalty. Where it is not forthcoming, it must be coerced. What Trump demands is not, in fact, loyalty; it is fealty, servility, sycophancy. And he feels that this is owed him not only by his staff or Cabinet but by the director of the F.B.I., by Congress, by judges, even by journalists: in an interview with the Associated Press in April, Trump observed, “When I won, I said, ‘Well, the one thing good is now I’ll get good press.’ ” All are expected to fall into line. So far, the President’s aides are sticking with him—there have been no high-level defections from the Administration. Michael Flynn, who was dismissed from his job as national-security adviser earlier this year, is even defying a subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has demanded documents concerning his interactions with Russian officials. Trump has encouraged him to “stand strong,” Flynn told a group of friends in April. But, with Republicans on the Hill growing restive in the face of every new day’s dramatic revelations, and with the Russia investigation now in the experienced hands of Robert Mueller, a former F.B.I. director, Trump may be about to find out how loyal his people are willing to be.