What Bolton Should Know About Working for Trump
(Bloomberg View) -- "Trump adviser" is an oxymoron. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall ever be.
President Donald Trump has rarely sought or heeded the advice of others, beginning several decades ago when he was a young developer in New York, through his years as a tabloid fixture and reality TV star, and on into the White House.
The president trusts his own instincts first and foremost, and lacks the attention span, curiosity and empathy to take other points of view on board. This should be no revelation to anyone observing the inner workings of the Oval Office lately, or to anyone climbing aboard the Trump Train now. It is, as they say, a feature of life in this White House, not a bug.
As I noted in a column early last year, beheadings are "Trump being Trump, and the country he's presiding over should brace itself accordingly." Yet the fact that "Trump adviser" is a contradiction in terms and West Wing churn is expected hasn't kept ambitious people from thinking -- bless their souls -- that they might be able to ride things out and even get the president to listen to them.
Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Cory Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Mike Dubke, Katie Walsh, Steve Bannon, Rex Tillerson, Dina Powell and Gary Cohn are case studies.
John Dowd and H.R. McMaster can join the list, too.
Dowd, who was Trump's lead attorney handling Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, left his White House job on Thursday. An injudicious lawyer who seemed occasionally to have done as much to encourage the president's worst habits as to restrain them, Dowd said he quit because ... wait for it, wait for it ... Trump wasn't taking his advice.
But Dowd's announcement barely got a chance to register before the next departure hit the news. On Thursday night, Trump took to Twitter to defenestrate McMaster:
Trump's tweet caught even McMaster's replacement, John Bolton, off guard. And it apparently also came as a surprise to a White House staff anticipating that others might be axed alongside McMaster as part of a group purge. How are you feeling today Ben Carson and David Shulkin? How about you, Jeff Sessions and John Kelly? And you, Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt?
Trump has come to enjoy making his hostages -- er, teammates -- walk the plank on Twitter, as Tillerson learned. Stressed-out West Wing employees should probably keep an even closer eye on their social media feeds.
So who's attracted to working for such a boss, and who thrives in such an environment? Those questions continue to fascinate students of the Trump administration, because they say as much about human nature as they do about the president's mismanagement.
Trump's fresh replacements, Bolton and economic adviser Larry Kudlow, are both strong-minded ultra-conservatives with long track records -- and both prone to Manichean views of the world.
Bolton's idea of how best to manage international threats more or less boils down to bomb them before they bomb you. Kudlow believes that endless tax cuts will ignite a supply-side economic boom. Both men also had become fixtures of conservative television so long in the tooth, they seemed unlikely to land meaningful positions in any White House.
Trump, a policy apostate presiding over the most shambolic administration in modern U.S. history, is giving them a shot at wedding extremism to policy -- at least for as long as Trump keeps them in the game.
What about those who have stayed, and even thrived in Trumplandia, while other advisers have fallen by the wayside? Sarah Huckabee Sanders is one such survivor.
Day in, day out, the president's press secretary commands the briefing-room podium, sometimes dissembling, runnning interference and offering silly justifications for bad behavior. A week ago, she said McMaster would not be fired. If she believed that, Trump helped undermine her credibility. If she knew it not to be true, then she and the president may be kindred spirits. Watch Sanders talk about Trump, Russia and Putin if you want to see someone whose expressions and locution are malleable enough to contain explanations for just about anything.
Unlike Spicer, who regularly appeared discombobulated, Sanders displays nary a tic and shows no outward signs that the work is taking a physical or psychological toll. So what traits distinguish White House advisers who can survive? For starters, they must possess transactional values, be unburdened by regret, and understand that they are there to foster a cult of personality around the boss.
They must also know that it's not their job to provide advice.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."
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