National security adviser H.R. McMaster and his deputy, Dina Powell, have been unhappy with Trump’s rhetoric on race over the past week, according to a White House official. But neither of them is considering resigning — they have told people it is too serious and dangerous a moment in the world for them to simply walk away.
Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council and a former Democrat, told colleagues he was furious at having to stand by like a prop while Trump defended neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the former Goldman Sachs CEO has not yet vented that frustration publicly, and friends and colleagues said they assume he is staying on in order to be nominated chairman of the Federal Reserve. “Nothing has changed,” a second White House official said. “Gary is focused on his responsibilities as NEC Director.”
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Trump’s longtime aide, Hope Hicks, who colleagues said is loyal to the president but not the nationalist program pushed by other aides, took a promotion the day after the president’s street brawl of a news conference. Assuming the position of interim communications director capped off an incredible rise for the 28-year-old political novice, who has never before held a job in Washington and in any other administration would likely not have been considered qualified for the post.
In the 48 hours following Trump’s explosive news conference from the marble lobby of his former Manhattan home — where he blamed “both sides” for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, killing a 32-year-old woman, and equated a counter-protest on the left with neo-Nazis and white nationalists — CEOs quit his business councils and Republican leaders in Congress denounced the president’s rhetoric. Two former Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, released a rare joint statement that did not mention Trump by name, but that took direct aim at his failure to “reject racial bigotry.”
Despite the growing public outcry, Trump is not, however, a man on an island: no White House official has yet resigned in protest, and in interviews with more than half a dozen administration officials, most aides said they did not expect any of their colleagues to cut and run.
It is rare to walk away from the power and prestige that comes with a White House badge and security clearance. In the weeks after the revelation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that tarred President Bill Clinton’s second term, many White House aides felt betrayed and angry at the president. Still, none of them resigned in protest.
“For several days a lot of folks didn’t even show up,” recalled Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who was part of the rapid response strategy team in the White House during the Lewinsky scandal. “Some issued their own statements and leaked self-serving comments. But in the end, everyone came back and eventually rallied around the president.”
Trump’s aides are not exactly rallying around him. But the interviews with administration officials, who did not want to speak on the record for fear of publicly disagreeing with the boss, showed that the majority of those offended by his comments are staying on in spite of him.
Their reasons for remaining, those interviewed said, range from personal ambition to feeling something like the designated driver at a drunken frat party.
“A lot of it is just making sure that things that are not fully baked or things that are not constructive don’t end up happening,” one senior White House aide explained of the rationale for soldiering on.
That echoed the thoughts of other officials, who said they believed that surrounding an erratic president with a professional team made for at least a shot at a functional government. Others cited work they could still achieve, even with a president whose temperament and embrace of Confederate symbols is dividing the party and at odds with their personal beliefs.
It’s rare that the Republican party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. And many aides said that despite the constraints, there remains an opportunity to move legislation, from tax reform to infrastructure. And despite the narrative that Trump serves as his own top strategist and communications director, White House aides have played key roles in defining and refining the president’s agenda, like helping to craft his well-received joint address to Congress, which laid out his domestic priorities.
Not everyone in the White House was horrified by Trump’s remarks. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has publicly lauded his “both sides” argument. Aides like Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro have long been propagating a nationalist program from inside the administration. And many loyalists on the outside were cheering him on — and even hoping that it would lead to a purge of the so-called “globalist” faction of the West Wing.
“I think the president helped himself. Boy, that would be great,” political operative Roger Stone, a longtime Trump loyalist said of the possibility of Cohn heading for the door in protest. “But I just don’t see the globalist contingent picking up and leaving — Gary wants to go to the Fed and probably will. Why not hang on for that appointment?”
Others with less ambitious goals than Cohn’s have justified remaining in Trump’s White House by telling themselves they are well-suited to the jobs they’re in, and that despite it all, they are still positioned to help bring about real, conservative change to the government.
And the less idealistic bunch have just grown jaded during their bumpy ride alongside Trump. The past week, multiple officials said, reminded them of so many incidents in the past, from Trump’s attacks during the campaign on everyone from Judge Gonzalo Curiel, to Sen. John McCain, to the Gold Star father Khizr Khan. For those who lived through the mother of all Trump crises, the release last October of the “Access Hollywood” tape, the firestorm of a news conference was just another Tuesday.
“It’s always been like this,” said one aide. “I’m anesthetized.”
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.