President Trump & the Establishment (Part 5): The Search for Loyalty and its Costs

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By Will Banyan, Copyright © 06 May 2018

Q. What is the number one trait you look for in employees?

A. Loyalty

Donald J. Trump at the Hearing Innovation Expo 2014, January 16, 2014


“I’m doing a great job, but my staff sucks…”

President Donald Trump soon after inauguration, quoted in Corey Lewandowski & David Bossie, Let Trump Be Trump (2017)


“I think that loyalty has always been a one-way street with Trump, and he doesn’t really care about the wreckages he engenders as long as he comes out where he wants to be.”

Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, quoted in New York Times, April 26, 2018

Amongst those independent researchers and activists who style themselves as opponents of the power-elite’s globalist project (otherwise known as the “New World Order”), there has long been angst about both Trump’s transparent failure to entirely exclude the various Establishment factions from key positions in his administration, and the numerous deviations from his ostensibly anti-globalist MAGA agenda. This was a particular concern in the latter part of 2017 when, much to their collective dismay, Trump seemed oblivious to the purge of many of the strongest supporters of his MAGA agenda and their replacement with either globalists or neo-conservatives. Such concerns have been magnified with the recent “precision” bombing of Syria and Trump’s momentary backflip on the Trans Pacific Partnership. A number of explanations have emerged as to why Trump has pursued this course.

One of the more obvious is that Trump was never serious about “draining the swamp” and he has been from the outset a secret “Insider”, who had lied about both his real aims and his elite ties. Jeff Berwick of The Dollar Vigilante, for example, had warned before the election that Trump was “a globalist, Jesuit insider and would just carry on the same agenda that has been carried on now for decades.” 100 days into his regime, claimed Berwick, Trump the “globalist insider” had “accomplished the exact opposite of what he said he would do before the election”; thus proving he had always been a “Trojan horse…to fool the public.” David Icke has repeatedly dismissed Trump as an “insider” (Figure 1); boldly claiming that an “ultra-Zionist inner core” that controls Israel also “own Donald Trump” who, from “day one”, had “given his administration over to ultra-Zionist American-Israeli dual citizens…” Recently interviewed by London Real, Icke denounced Trump as an “actor” who was following the same “neo-con” agenda as his predecessors.

Figure 1: Trump the “Insider”

Controversial Australian commentator Caitlin Johnstone—who had previously asserted that Trump had been “hand-picked” to run against Hillary—has argued that “Trump has been absorbed by the Deep State” (Medium, Apr. 24, 2017). In subsequent assessments, Johnstone contends that Trump has revealed himself to be “just one more garden variety deep state tool advancing the agenda of the corporate machine…” and a “neoconservative neoliberal guardian of the status quo, just like his predecessors.” More recently a clearly jaded Johnstone lamented that:

…there has always been a massive gulf between the things this US president says and the things that the administration actually does, especially when it comes to neoconservative agendas…Nothing would give me greater joy than to admit that Trump appears to have finally followed through on his years-long advocacy of non-interventionist foreign policy and opposition to globalism and neoconservatism. So far, though, what we have is a US president whose words say one thing and whose actions say something very different.

The other narrative, emanating from Trump’s populist nationalist base, maintains faith in his anti-elitism, in the sincerity of his opposition to the Establishment and “Deep State”, and instead argues that “globalist” elements and “Obama holdovers” have somehow infiltrated the Trump Administration intent on sabotaging his “America First” agenda. Pondering this issue for The New American (Feb. 25, 2017), for instance, Alex Newman speculated:

Did the so-called Deep State find a way to get to Trump? Is Trump simply unaware of the CFR’s well-documented agenda to undermine U.S. sovereignty, liberty, and prosperity? Are there globalist CFR operatives who have burrowed their way into senior positions in the administration, and are now working to bring in more swamp creatures to mislead and sabotage Trump?

Late last year CNS News commentator Scot Faulkner argued that Trump had been “ill-served and misled from the very beginning” by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had used his lead role in the transition to shut out “Trump conservatives” and let in “Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush operatives.” Even Bannon had been “duped” into “believing only the Washington Establishment was capable of helping Trump prepare for his Presidency.”

This theory was particularly popular with the pro-Trump alt-media – specifically Breitbart, Infowars, Gateway Pundit, and Mike Cernovich – when they sought to explain the purge of “America First” supporters from the National Security Council (NSC) staff by then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Gateway Pundit (Aug. 3, 2017), for example, claimed that “entrenched bureaucracies” were purging “Trump loyalists” in a bid to “maintain control over policy decision-making”, these actions were occurring “without Trump’s knowledge.” In this “If only the Führer knew”-like narrative Trump is the unwitting victim of devious Establishment machinations. Cernovich, for example, claimed Trump had been “abused like a beta male by the GOP establishment…” “The globalists have got Trump by his huevos” declared a seemingly distraught Alex Jones, in a live broadcast denouncing the most recent US-led bombing of Syrian chemical weapons sites, “They have broken him.”

Long-time, but now seemingly disenchanted (Figure 2) Trump supporter Ann Coulter vented to Lou Dobbs on Fox that since taking office Trump now craved “the approval of the Manhattan fancy people” and wanted “Goldman Sachs to like him”; part of the problem, she argued, was that many of Trump’s advisers opposed his agenda, especially on immigration.

Figure 2: Trump the Promise-Breaker

Both explanations have an element of truth in them though both skirt around its implications: the problem lies with Trump himself. It is contended here that Trump’s curious choice of appointees and policy backflips, can be traced to his capriciousness rather than his sinister associations. They reflect Trump’s obsession with loyalty and personal chemistry over having an Establishment-free resume or even explicitly supporting his much-vaunted “America First” program. This preference for personal rather than ideological loyalty serves Trump’s objective of giving himself an administration that will bend to his desires, particularly as he retreats from or modifies parts his platform. This fixation on personal loyalty explains the purge of both MAGA supporters late last year and then of the so-called “globalists” early this year, and their replacement by pro-Israel conservative interventionists (John Bolton and Mike Pompeo), and yet another free trader (Larry Kudlow).

In short, Trump let the globalists in because he values personal fealty over ideology. The result is that Trump’s administration is like that of other presidents (as noted in Part 1) who ran on anti-Establishment platforms only to do the opposite once in power. The only wildcard, it seems, is the fickleness of the President himself.

The Loyalty Test

As we have already seen in Part 4, Trump has approved numerous appointees with strong Establishment resumes, and even “globalist” sympathies, despite his “drain the swamp” and “America First” campaign rhetoric. The reason can be found in his appointment process—which he tightly micro-manages—that remains focused almost entirely on testing candidates for their personal loyalty to Trump. According to Politico (Apr. 11, 2017) Trump “personally oversees the hiring process for agency staff by insisting on combing through a binder full of names each week and likes to sign off on each one…” Moreover:

The only uniformity is that potential hires must show fealty to the president. One person close to the White House said a sense of “paranoia” has taken over amid fears that disloyal hires might undercut Trump’s agenda or leak to the press [emphasis added].

“Credentialed candidates have had to prove loyalty to the president”, noted a recent Washington Post report. At the Pentagon, for example, McClatchy News (Jun. 05, 2017) noted that the vetting process was fixated on the social media accounts of potential appointees, and where “any hint of something negative about Trump as a candidate can be disqualifying, and a lot of people haven’t made it through that filter…” It was a similar story at the State Department where appointees had been repeatedly blocked,

… by a White House personnel office that screens for early support for Trump, and vetoes those who offered any criticism during the campaign—which eliminates the vast majority of those with any experience in foreign affairs (The Atlantic Oct. 9, 2017; emphasis added)

This privileging of personal loyalty to Trump over a commitment to the “America First” agenda also means that the recruitment process can and has been subverted, as others leverage their personal links with Trump to install their own fellow-travellers. Trump’s daughter and Senior Advisor Ivanka Trump and her husband Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, for example, have vouched for a number of potential appointees, many of whom have proved to be opposed to Trump’s “America First” agenda. It was Ivanka who brought Dina Powell into the White House, while Kushner is credited with finding and endorsing Gary Cohn, Peter Navarro, and Reed Cordish (a friend of Kushner and also married to a “close college friend” of Ivanka). Of this group, only Navarro is considered an economic nationalist.

Indeed it is this obsession with “loyalty” that explains why Shermichael Singleton an aide to Ben Carson, Trump’s Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, was fired after it was discovered he had written an op-ed critical of Trump in October 2016. And why Craig Deare, a senior staffer in the National Security Council, was fired from the NSC in February 2017 for making off-the-record comments critical of Trump at a private symposium at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Even Supreme Court appointee Neil Gorsuch ran the gauntlet, with Trump fretting to his advisers about Gorsuch’s “loyalty”, not because of his CFR membership, but because of his criticisms of Trump’s attacks on the federal judiciary. It also explains Jon Lerner turning down an offer to work as Pence’s national security adviser after Trump reportedly tried to block him because of concerns he had once been a “Never Trumper.” And why Anne Marie Hauser’s mooted appointment at the State Department was “scuttled” after she was found to have made an anti-Trump tweet in 2016.

Personal chemistry or family connections, rather than experience, also seem to be crucial. The New York Times (Mar. 14, 2017), reported that Trump’s White House is “peppered with assistants and advisors whose principal qualification is their friendship with Mr. Trump and his family.” Examples include: Trump’s personal lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, was made Special Representative for International Negotiations; Trump’s long-time bodyguard, Keith Schiller who served as Director of Oval Office Operations (he resigned in September 2017); Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a Trump family friend, became Public Liaison Assistant; Hope Hicks, White House Communications Director, had worked for Ivanka Trump in 2014 before being selected as Trump’s press secretary for his campaign in January 2015 (she resigned this April); and Omarosa Manigault, a former Apprentice contestant who reportedly has a “bond that goes back years with [Trump]” who served in his campaign was appointed Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison (she was fired last December).

That Trump’s proclaimed aim of looking for “new people” rather than “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war” was a much lower priority than demonstrated loyalty or personal chemistry was demonstrated most plainly in two key recruitment decisions:

The first of these was Trump’s decision in early 2017 to reject the appointment of Elliott Abrams as Deputy Secretary of State. Abrams had been recommended to Trump by Kushner, responding to lobbying from pro-Israel casino magnate Sheldon Adelson among others. The reason for the rejection was not Abrams role as Senior Fellow on Middle East Studies at the CFR; nor was it over residual concerns about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal; or his status as a neo-conservative intellectual who served in the George W. Bush’s NSC backing the invasion of Iraq; or even that he was, in the view of many leftist critics, a “war criminal” guilty of facilitating genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s. The sole factor that disqualified Abrams was his perceived disloyalty to Trump:

The president overruled his secretary of state — following [a] meeting with Tillerson, Abrams and son-in-law Jared Kushner — after reading news reports about their meeting, which included references to Abrams’ criticisms of Trump during last year’s presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the decision. Though his staff was aware of Abrams’ statements, the president was not — until he read news reports about their meeting earlier this week (Politico, Feb. 10, 2017; emphasis added).

An unnamed “top Republican strategist” who supported Abrams explained to Politico that this demonstrated “Trump’s thin-skinnedness…He is the problem, this is all he cares about.”

The second decision of note is Trump’s recent and controversial choice of John Bolton as National Security Advisor following his sudden (though long-anticipated) firing of H.R. McMaster. Widely attacked as a “hawk”, “neo-con interventionist”, a “madman” and “unilateralist ideologue”, Bolton, who had been US Ambassador to the United Nations for George W. Bush and an unrepentant supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was considered by many critics to be an unusual choice. Not least because back in 2013 Trump had gone on record disparaging former Bush Administration officials who were involved in Iraq:

“Bolton is a hawk’s hawk. Trump is not”, argued one commentator in the Daily Beast, noting that Trump had campaigned as an “isolationist.” “How does the neocon of neocons — of the most aggressive and ruthless persuasion — align with a man who condemned our international overextension during his campaign”, a former Obama Administration official told Politico. Hoover Institution academic Larry Diamond considered Bolton a “very odd choice for someone who says he was against going to war in Iraq…”

Certainly, by that measure alone, it was a surprising appointment. Indeed, Bolton’s role as a Senior Fellow at that neo-conservative bastion the American Enterprise Institute was no more an obstacle than his recent (2015) unrepentant defense of the invasion of Iraq: “the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.” As Bolton was at pains to point out in his autobiography, Surrender Is Not an Option (2007), he had “no significant decision-making role in Iraq policy” (p.166), he still believed “Saddam Hussein’s regime constituted a threat to peace and our security” which was “a compelling justification to eliminate it” (p.438).

In his role in the State Department as Under-Secretary for Arms Control, Bolton did his part promoting the myth that Iraq had an active nuclear WMD program. “We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq.” Bolton had told the BBC in 2002. He added: “There is no doubt in our mind that Saddam Hussein has an active chemical and biological warfare effort.” The failure to find Saddam’s WMD prompted no moments of reflection in Surrender Is Not An Option, only that the violent destabilization of Iraq that followed the US invasion was no cause to rule out “regime change or using military force” when dealing with other “rogue states” in the future (p.438).

The main reason Bolton’s ideological differences and complicity in the Iraq disaster were overlooked was his “personal chemistry” with Trump, that he had developed through his regular visits to the White House. Bolton, Spencer Ackerman reported in the Daily Beast, “long has had a personal chemistry and rapport with the president in ways McMaster lacked.” “This is about personal chemistry”, reported Axios, quoting an unnamed “White House official”, who opined that Bolton’s appointment showed “yet again that personal chemistry is the most powerful currency with Trump — more than ideology, perhaps even more than loyalty” [emphasis added].

It is true that some vehement Trump critics have been appointed. For example, flash-in-the-pan White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, senior State Department officials Brian Hook and R.C. Hammond, and Director of Public Affairs Sarah Isgur Flores had each criticized Trump at various points during the campaign. But their appointments have coincided with the public or private repudiation of their earlier criticisms of Trump. Hammond, for example, told Politico that he merely had “questions” about Trump and that by Election Day “the candidate won my vote.” Scaramucci also did an about face, telling Vanity Fair that Trump was a “very fun guy”, with “great analytical depth”, and a “naturally talented” politician. At the start of his brief appointment, Scaramucci even declared his intent to erase all his previous Twitter posts critical of Trump. Flores reportedly “kowtowed to Trump” directly, meeting him in the Oval Office to declare she was “on board with his agenda and would be honoured to serve with him…”

It is a test that not all potential appointees pass though: former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was reportedly passed over for the Secretary of State position because of his refusal to publicly apologize and repudiate his earlier criticisms of Trump.

The Fearful (and Flexible) Master

Trump’s fixation on personal rather than ideological loyalty obviously has its drawbacks in that it has allowed opponents of his agenda, i.e. the Establishment, to take root in his administration. For those Trump supporters who see the CFR, for example, as “the most visible manifestation of…the US establishment” (Perloff) and Bilderberg as “a group of unelected bankers and corporate masters controlling the fate of humanity” (Infowars); it must be galling to note that “[m]ore than a few of his cabinet secretaries…are members of the CFR and/or attendees of Bilderberg” (The New American). But aside from the ego boost Trump might get from having Establishment members at his beck and call, his focus on personal loyalty serves two important needs.

First, is that Trump prefers to be surrounded by sycophants who will lavish praise and not criticize or challenge him. According to Michael D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump (2015), Trump has long sought to “limit what enters his echo chamber to praise and affirmation” and to surround himself with “familiar and agreeable faces who validated his perspective.” In fact:

In his business life, Trump hired with an eye to loyalty first and experience second. Those who challenged him were soon dismissed; those who joined the amen chorus thrived.

Tony Schwartz, the now remorseful ghost-writer of Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1987), told the New Yorker (Jul. 25, 2016) that Trump always reacted badly if challenged about any of his numerous lies: “When challenged about the facts…Trump would often double down, repeat himself and grow belligerent.” This has been confirmed by former employees. “He did not like people who disagreed with him…” Bruce Nobles, the former Trump Shuttle president, told Politico Magazine (March/April 2018), “…Those who disagree with him don’t seem to last very long.” Jack O’Donnell, President of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in the late 1980s, concurred: “[Trump] demanded loyalty in the sense that he didn’t like a lot of pushback.”

All these traits have been on display since Trump entered the White House. Leaks to the mainstream media, allegedly from White House staffers, paint a picture of a remarkably thin-skinned leader who needs constant praise and finds any criticism or push-back intolerable. According to conservative commentator Eric Erickson, for example, citing an anonymous White House source:

[Trump] will not take any internal criticism, no matter how politely it is given. He does not want advice, cannot be corrected, and is too insecure to see any constructive feedback as anything other than an attack [emphasis added].

That Trump must be spared criticism, lest he explode into rage, has proved to be a staple of some of the more insidious mainstream media narratives about his presidency: “White House and former campaign aides have tried to make sure Trump’s media diet includes regular doses of praise and positive stories to keep his mood up”, reports Politico (May 15, 2017). According to veteran political reporter Elizabeth Drew: “Trump has a mediocre staff, whom he doesn’t treat well. They’re hesitant to give him news he won’t like for fear of being screamed at, a frequent event” (New York Review of Books, Apr. 05, 2017). According to “White House officials and informal advisers” cited by Politico (Aug. 16, 2017), among “the triggers for [Trump’s] temper are…if someone criticizes him…”

Second, by elevating personal loyalty over ideology, Trump protects his much-vaunted ability to be flexible. Both during the 2016 campaign and since assuming the presidency, Trump has repeatedly boasted of and demonstrated his “flexibility” on a host of policy issues. “You don’t go in with plans. You go in with a certain flexibility. And you sort of wheel and deal.” Trump told the New York Times in 2015. During the GOP debate in Michigan in March last year, Trump argued that one could not be a “successful person” without having “a certain degree of flexibility.” Again in May last year Trump explained to Fox and Friends that: “Look, anything I say right now — I’m not the president. Everything is a suggestion. No matter what you say, it is a suggestion.” “I am totally flexible on very, very many issues,” Trump said on the Today show, “and I think you have to be that way.”

For critics and other observers, this flexibility is merely evidence of Trump’s lack of commitment to any ideology. “Trump in my experience has no ideology” Art of the Deal co-author Schwartz had tweeted in 2016. In comments to the Washington Post, Schwartz explained: “Trump is motivated by the same concern in all situations, which is to dominate and to be perceived as having won. That supersedes everything, including ideology.” Trump supplicant Scaramucci described him as “a very pragmatic, very adaptive entrepreneurial personality” who uses contentious language as a cover for moderate solutions.  “He’s a dealmaker, and he’s extremely flexible,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told the Post. According to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner:

Donald Trump’s not a Republican. He’s not a Democrat. He’s a populist. He doesn’t have an ideological bone in his body (Politico, Nov/Dec 2017; emphasis added).

This “flexibility” or ideological vacuum has long been on display, not only in his flip from being a New York Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter, to becoming a Republican and seemingly implacable Clinton opponent, but even on his core appeal, his anti-globalism. In 2013, for example, in an opinion piece for CNN (Jan 22. 2013), Trump had observed that “the global economy has become truly that – global”, indeed “our cultures and economics are intertwined.” This was “good news”, he wrote, and it was “time for working together for the best of all involved.”  But to achieve “financial stability”, everyone would “have to leave borders behind and go for global unity…” Three years later, driven by ambition Trump advocated exactly the opposite view, as he did in Pennsylvania in June 2016:

Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization – moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.

Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.

This pledge was subsequently reaffirmed in Trump’s address to the 2017 Building Trades Unions National Legislative Conference on April 4:

I don’t want to be — the President of the world.  I’m the President of the United States. And from now on, it’s going to be America First.

But in his joint press conference only eight days later with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump seemed to signal the US would resume its global focus:

Right now, the world is a mess.  But I think by the time we finish, I think it’s going to be a lot better place to live.  And I can tell you that, speaking for myself, by the time I’m finished, it’s going to be a lot better place to live in…[emphasis added]

When explaining to the Wall Street Journal (Apr. 27, 2017) his decision to renegotiate rather than unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA, Trump dismissed suggestions there were nationalist and globalist factions in the White House. The truth was simpler:

“Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist,” he said. “I’m both. And I’m the only one who makes the decision, believe me.”

Since assuming office Trump has been repeatedly described as a “Jekyll and Hyde” president  because of his policy reversals or “dual messaging” strategy on numerous matters including: trade in general, NAFTA, and foreign policy issues such as Asia security, United Nations, and Syria, Iran, NATO and Russia. Naturally, by Trump’s criteria, people who are loyal to him rather than his America First ideology are more likely to support his “flexibility” as he abandons parts of his campaign agenda, as he discovers, yet again, that some issues are more complicated than his oversimplified talking points suggested.

Of course, Trump’s prioritising of personal loyalty over ideology as to satisfy his emotional needs is neither an adequate strategy for governing effectively nor for keeping the Establishment at bay…

To be concluded in Part Six.

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