On December 29, 2016, the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for meddling in the U.S. election, retired General Michael Flynn, who would become President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, spoke by telephone multiple times with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. When that news broke a week before Trump’s inauguration, basically every senior official in the incoming administration, including Vice President–elect Mike Pence, told the public that Flynn had not discussed sanctions at all.
Knowingly or not, they were all propagating a lie.
It should not be assumed that Pence in particular didn’t know the truth of the matter when he claimed Flynn and Kislyak exchanged Christmas pleasantries. Pence had access to all the country’s secrets and at the very least we should assume he could have gotten to the bottom of the matter if he’d really wanted to. But now that the cat’s totally out of the bag, Team Pence is letting reporters know, through anonymous leaks, that the vice president is very mad Flynn hung him out to dry.
In a normal administration—indeed, in any competently managed enterprise—someone who misled the leadership on such a high-stakes matter would’ve been a goner long ago. In this one, Flynn apparently has Trump’s “full confidence.” Knives are out for Flynn across the government, and he may ultimately be forced out, but Trump apparently wants to “keep moving forward,” a source told the Wall Street Journal.
But even in a dysfunctional White House, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the story to end there. A vice president with any dignity or concern for the ultimate fate of the administration and the country would do more than whine namelessly to the press. He would give the president an ultimatum: Flynn goes or I go.
Pence is apparently doing no such thing. If the situation weren’t so dangerous, it would be amusing just how badly Trump and his inner circle fail their own heavily gendered standards for what makes political leaders tough and strong.
In Trump’s telling, President Barack Obama and other previous presidents were constantly outmanned by negotiating partners in the United States and abroad. Every formal agreement or charter or treaty that predates Trump stands as a testament to American leaders getting rolled.
This is all mythical nonsense, both as an interpretation of facts, and as a characterization of toughness. There’s nothing extraordinary or admirable or particularly masculine about driving hard bargains and demanding truth and transparency from people across the table. And there’s nothing inherently weak about making concessions in negotiation with adversaries. It’s just basic competence. By contrast, tweeting that Iran is ON NOTICE…
…sounds very macho, but doesn’t actually strengthen the United States’ hands in hostile relations with Tehran, and in all likelihood will be interpreted as clownish drivel exposing Trump as a barking, but toothless adversary. Over and over Trump et al demonstrate the validity of that interpretation. Letting Flynn keep his job is just one example.
Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, whine incessantly about how unfair the media is to the administration and to Republicans generally. Spicer dwelled for days on the media’s portrayal of Trump’s relatively small inauguration crowd. “The default narrative is always negative, and it’s demoralizing,” Spicer said. The administration is constantly seeking apologies for perceived slights.
Despite his brash public persona, and the catchphrase that defined his TV show The Apprentice, Trump is reportedly confrontation averse in private, so much so that he depends on underlings to actually fire people, or simply gives them the silent treatment and hopes they go away. “I have never heard him say the words ‘You’re fired’ to anyone,” Billy Procida, a former vice president for the Trump Organization, told Politico’s Michael Kruse. “He really doesn’t fire people. He makes it known he doesn’t want you there, and you move on.” (Contrast this with Obama, who announced he’d fired a four-star general on national television.)
This weakness contributes to a wayward and depressing climate in the White House, with multiple factions anonymously backbiting each other and angling for clout by leaking juicy details of administrative incompetence to the press. The fact that Spicer wasn’t Trump’s ideal press secretary keeps finding its way into palace intrigue stories. “A little bit of under-competence and a slight amount of insecurity can breed some paranoia and backstabbing,” a White House official complained to The Washington Post about chief of staff Reince Priebus. “We have to get Reince to relax into the job and become more competent, because he’s seeing shadows where there are no shadows.”
Like Pence, Spicer and Priebus have not resigned in disgust. They have instead served up their dignity to Trump in the most humiliating fashion, so that Trump can continue to serve up the country’s dignity on the global stage. We look not like winners, but losers.