Andrew Ross Sorkin is an interesting fellow – a business reporter for the New York Times and a co-host on CNBC in the mornings, but really a teller of tales. He makes that dry financial stuff novelistic – vivid complex characters dealing with crises that, in the end, are personal – about values and integrity – about saving their businesses, or the economy, but really about saving their souls. That’s what his famous book Too Big to Fail was about – it was about more than the financial crisis at the end of the Bush administration that came close to ending the world as we know it.
Sorkin then co-produced a movie adaptation of the book for HBO Films. An agonized William Hurt was Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary. William Hurt does personal agony well. Paul Giamatti was Ben Bernanke, the quiet panicked scholarly chairman of the Federal Reserve. James Woods was the proud and clueless Richard Fuld, the CEO of Lehman Brothers – a study in angry defensive denial. Edward Asner was Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, but he was still the kind and curmudgeonly Lou Grant from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Bill Pullman was Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase – not the former fighter pilot now president saving the world from space aliens on Independence Day, but close enough. It was a rip-roaring tale.
The awful thing was that it was all true. Sorkin is a reporter. He interviewed all these folks, extensively. He father may have been a playwright, but Sorkin didn’t make up all this stuff out of thin air. He just turned it all into high drama, which it was anyway.
Andrew Ross Sorkin was made for the Trump years, and he, with the help of three other reporters from the New York Times, now tells another tale of personal crises in that world:
On Tuesday, Indra Nooyi, the chief executive of PepsiCo, joined a call with other prominent corporate chieftains who – like her – had agreed to advise President Trump.
A rebellion was brewing.
Along with other business leaders, Ms. Nooyi had watched with bafflement over the weekend as Mr. Trump blamed “many sides” for an outburst of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va.
Ms. Nooyi spoke with Mary T. Barra, the head of General Motors, Virginia M. Rometty, the chief of IBM, and Rich Lesser, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group, who were similarly outraged with the president’s response. All of them wondered whether it was time to step down from the Strategic and Policy Forum, an elite group formed late last year to advise the president on economic issues.
It might be time to save their souls, but they weren’t alone:
As these calls were occurring, the president’s other main business advisory group, the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, had begun to disintegrate. Early Monday, the chief executive of Merck stepped down from that group, followed by the chiefs of Intel and Under Armour, and representatives from a labor group and a nonprofit business alliance.
Some chief executives were still on the fence on Tuesday, torn between remaining on the prestigious presidential policy advisory panel and making a statement by stepping down.
But after the president delivered a series of stunning remarks in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, when he again equated far-right hate groups with the groups protesting them, many chief executives had enough.
On Wednesday morning, a dozen of the country’s most influential C.E.O.s joined a conference call, and, after some debate, a consensus emerged: The policy forum would be disbanded, delivering a blow to a president who came into office boasting of his close ties with business leaders.
With the collapse of the councils, the president had all but lost his most natural constituency – the corporate leaders who stood to benefit from his agenda of lower taxes and lighter regulation.
American business leaders were about to turn their backs on Donald Trump, but he wasn’t going to be embarrassed:
Before they could make a statement announcing their decision, however, Mr. Trump spoke. He had caught wind of their planned defection and wanted to have the last word. Taking to twitter, he wrote: “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you all!”
He had trumped them, but he had really lost this one:
Seven months into his presidency, Mr. Trump is faced with an uncomfortable situation: Fewer and fewer business leaders are willing to be associated with a president who continues to advance opinions and policies that are deeply unpopular.
“There is continuing pressure on C.E.O.s from customers, employees, shareholders and board members to take a position against what’s going on and separate themselves from president Trump’s councils,” said Bill George, the former chief executive of the medical device maker Medtronic and a board member of Goldman Sachs. “These executives cannot live with customers thinking they are in cahoots with someone who supports white supremacists or neo-Nazis.”
Sorkin then reports this:
“In American history, we’ve never had business leaders decline national service when requested by the president,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “They’ve now turned their backs on him.”
The Atlantic’s David Graham says that’s not exactly so:
Trump had been defiant over earlier defections – “For every CEO that drops out of the Manufacturing Council, I have many to take their place. Grandstanders should not have gone on. JOBS!” he tweeted Tuesday morning – but he saw the end in sight and tried to get ahead of the story. In a twist on the old “you can’t quit, I’m firing you,” he said he did so for the good of the members.
That’s not a win, as Graham notes the essential contradiction here:
Trump’s campaign for president stood on two legs: the politics of racial grievance, and a promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. What became clear this week is that he can either work with industrial titans on jobs or he can place white identity politics center stage, but he cannot do both. With his open embrace of de-facto white nationalism on Tuesday, Trump made his choice.
From his border wall with Mexico to his protectionist trade impulses to his vow to end “American carnage,” Trump promised white Americans that he would get them back on their feet, turn back the tides of immigration and progressive social justice, and bring back their jobs.
Forget that now, but of course he was never very serious about this stuff, even if he should have been:
In practical terms, the end of these groups may not make much difference. After all, Trump has achieved so few of his goals on economic policy that the executives’ absence can’t really hurt. It is, however, a blow to Trump’s self-conception. Having long nursed a grudge over being viewed derisively by many business moguls, he reveled in inviting them to the White House. It is also a blow to his public image, suggesting that rather than being the businessman who could fix government, he can wrangle neither the private nor the public sector effectively.
And it is, as well, a challenge to his approach to race. On Tuesday, a reporter asked him what he’d do to overcome racial divides. “I really think jobs can have a big impact,” Trump said. “I think if we continue to create jobs at levels that I’m creating jobs, I think that’s going to have a tremendous impact, positive impact, on race relations.”
If Trump believes, as he told reporters, that racial divides can be healed by the rising wages of a manufacturing revival, the dissolution of the business councils deals his agenda a double blow.
It’s all going bad:
The demise of the two panels is just one element of the latest self-inflicted crisis for the White House. Pundits have for months wondered what would happen when Trump encountered a genuine crisis that was not of his own making, and Charlottesville helps to clarify: As usual, he finds a way to make it harder for himself.
One bright spot for Trump is that, despite the horror with which his comments on Charlottesville have been received, he has yet to have a single Cabinet member or high-profile aide resign in protest. While there’s been lots of staff turnover at the White House, those who have left have either been fired or pushed out in internal power battles. Reports pop up from time to time of top aides who are angry, but none of them has actually quit or said publicly that they could not tolerate the president’s words or actions.
Wait for it. Andrew Ross Sorkin will turn it into high drama, but until then, Politico’s Josh Dawsey tells another tale:
Trump’s temper has been a constant force in this eight-month-old White House. He’s made policy decisions after becoming irritated with staffers and has escalated fights in the past few weeks with everyone from the Senate majority leader to the volatile dictator of North Korea.
The controversy over his response to the Charlottesville violence was no different. Agitated about being pressured by aides to clarify his first public statement, Trump unexpectedly unwound the damage control of the prior two days by assigning blame to the “alt-left” and calling some of the white supremacist protesters “very fine people.”
“In some ways, Trump would rather have people calling him racist than say he backed down the minute he was wrong,” one adviser to the White House said on Wednesday about Charlottesville. “This may turn into the biggest mess of his presidency because he is stubborn and doesn’t realize how bad this is getting.”
This then is another “how to manage the mad king” tale:
For Trump, anger serves as a way to manage staff, express his displeasure or simply as an outlet that soothes him. Often, aides and advisers say, he’ll get mad at a specific staffer or broader situation, unload from the Oval Office and then three hours later act as if nothing ever occurred even if others still feel rattled by it. Negative television coverage and lawyers earn particular ire from him.
White House officials and informal advisers say the triggers for his temper are if he thinks someone is lying to him, if he’s caught by surprise, if someone criticizes him, or if someone stops him from trying to do something or seeks to control him.
He does seem quite mad – no one knows when he’ll suddenly get white-hot angry and then entirely forget he was angry in the first place, unless he remembers, and that leads to this:
The majority of Trump’s top aides, with the notable exception of Steve Bannon, had been encouraging Trump to put to an end this damaging news cycle and talk that makes him seem sympathetic to groups that widely decry Jews, minorities and women. But the president did not want to be told what to do and seemed in high spirits on Tuesday evening, even as headlines streamed out about his seeming overtures to hate groups, according to one White House adviser who spoke to him.
The president “thinks he’s right. He still thinks he’s right,” an adviser said.
But in this White House, Trump’s anger isn’t just a side detail for stories about the various warring ideological factions, or who’s up and down in the West Wing. Instead, that anger and its rallying cry helped to fuel his rise to the White House, and now Trump uses it as a way to govern, present himself to the American public and even create policy.
Governing the nation by means of sudden fits of anger, that may pass and that he may forget an hour later – that’s an interesting concept, but that’s the concept:.
In one stark example, the president’s dislike of being told what to do played a role in his decision to abruptly ban all transgender people from the military: a move opposed by his own defense secretary, James Mattis, and the head of the Coast Guard, who vowed not to honor the president’s decree.
The president had grown tired of White House lawyers telling him what he could and could not do on the ban and numerous other issues such as labor regulations, said one informal White House adviser. While multiple factors were in play with the transgender ban, Trump has grown increasingly frustrated by the lawyers’ calls for further study and caution, so he took it upon himself to tweet out the news of the ban, partly as a reminder to the lawyers who’s in charge, the adviser said.
“For Trump, there came a moment where he wanted to re-establish that he was going to do what he was going to do,” said the adviser, who knows both the president and members of the staff. “He let his lawyers know that it’s his job to make decisions and their job to figure out how to implement it.”
That transgender-ban may have been a dumb idea, and offensive to just about everybody, but it was HIS idea, damn it!
It also should have been expected:
The outbursts extend back to Trump’s campaign days when he could become irritated about expenses and money, according to a senior campaign official.
Some aides and advisers defended the president’s temper by chalking it up to part of the deal of working in a demanding environment for a high-profile boss, a situation that could easily be replicated in Wall Street or Hollywood.
“When the president is upset and people are in the room, it does not mean he is necessarily upset with them,” one close adviser to the White House said. “Often, he is upset with the direction of where the situation was going.”
Nor is Trump’s anger omnipresent. It does not always appear in traditionally stressful situations such as during personnel changes, or responding to a major threat or incident. Instead, the president’s temper flares when he feels personally wronged, or controlled, or as if someone is not being loyal to him, aides and advisers say.
They’ve learned to tip-toe around the White House – that’s just part of the job – but the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Robert Costa cover the resistance to that:
As the new White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly routes all calls to and from President Trump through the White House switchboard, where he can sign off on them. He stanches the flow of information reaching the president’s desk. And he requires that all staff members – including Trump’s relatives – go through him to reach the president.
But none of those attempts at discipline mattered this week. Instead, Kelly stood to the side as Trump upended his new chief of staff’s carefully scripted plans – pinballing through an impromptu and combative news conference in New York in which he inflamed another self-inflicted controversy by comparing the actions of white supremacist groups at a deadly rally in Charlottesville last weekend with the counter-protesters who came to oppose them.
The uproar – which has consumed not only the White House but the Republican Party – left Kelly deeply frustrated and dismayed just over two weeks into his job, said people familiar with his thinking. The episode also underscored the difficult challenges that even a four-star general faces in instilling a sense of order around Trump, whose first instinct when cornered is to lash out, even self-destructively.
It’s hard to deal with a mad king:
By Wednesday, Trump, back at his New Jersey golf club, was further isolated and the White House was again under attack. Some aides and confidants privately described themselves as sickened and appalled, if not entirely surprised, by Trump’s off-the-cuff comments. And the president watched, furious, as a cascade of chief executives distanced themselves from him, prompting the dissolution of his major business advisory councils.
General Kelly is failing:
Kelly allies say the former homeland security secretary came into the West Wing job clear-eyed and practical, with the goal of implementing discipline on the staff and processes of the White House, not controlling the president.
“It’s clear Kelly is having a stabilizing and organizing influence on the White House,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), an informal Trump adviser. But, he added, “He will gradually have an impact on Trump but it won’t be immediate. There are parts of Trump that are almost impossible to manage.”
That’s just how it is:
Another Republican operative and unofficial White House adviser was more definitive, saying that no matter how respected or talented Kelly may be, his first 2½ weeks on the job demonstrated an essential truth about the Trump White House: The president will act as he so pleases, even despite – and sometimes to spite – the efforts of his aides.
“The Kelly era was a bright, shining interlude between failed attempts to right the Trump presidency and it has now come to a close after a short but glorious run,” the operative said. “Like all people who work for the president, he has since experienced the limits of the president’s promises to cooperate in order to ensure the success of the enterprise.”
That’s the sad tale that ends with this:
Within the West Wing, Kelly remains popular. Late last week in Bedminster, he gathered at Trump’s clubhouse restaurant for a relaxed, social dinner with the senior staff members. The group included Ivanka Trump, son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Hicks, Nielsen and others. The president also came by, staying for the full meal.
As they reminisced about the campaign and told jokes, Kelly offered a quip. “The best job I ever had was as a sergeant in the Marine Corps,” he said with a laugh, “and after one week on this job, I believe the best job I ever had is as a sergeant in the Marine Corps.”
Okay, when Andrew Ross Sorkin writes the definitive book about all of this, and co-produces the inevitable movie, William Hurt can play General Kelly. William Hurt does personal agony well, but Slate’s Fred Kaplan adds additional characters:
In a stunning bit of news, the chiefs of all four U.S. military services – Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines – have issued statements this week condemning racism in all its forms. This can only be seen as a rebuke to President Trump’s equivocating statements on last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia – i.e., as a rebuke to their commander in chief.
If we lived in a different sort of country, this could fairly be seen as the prelude to a military coup – and a coup that many might welcome.
The United States is not that sort of country. The principles of civilian control and an apolitical military are hammered into every officer’s sensibility in every forum of education and training. Yet, at the same time, so are principles of equality and nondiscrimination – enshrined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and bolstered by the military’s heritage as a spearhead of racial integration shortly after World War II, long before other segments of American society followed along.
The chiefs’ statements amount to a reaffirmation of those latter principles.
This is high drama too:
The top brass are putting up an explicitly united front against what they see as a threat to their ethos. The remarkable thing is that, though they don’t say so, the threat is coming from the top of their chain of command.
If we’re not headed toward a coup, what is going on? What does this looming tension signify about our security policy and the shape of our politics?
It seems that governing the nation by means of sudden fits of anger, that may pass and that the president may forget an hour later, just won’t do:
The United States, right now, has no coherent security policy – either toward particular countries or in general. Is it American policy to aid and support democracy, adhere to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, oppose (or even acknowledge) Russian interference in Western politics? What is our stance on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, or eastern Ukraine? How are we managing the balance between conflict and cooperation with the rising power of China? The answers depend on who you believe is speaking on behalf of the United States. The secretary of defense, secretary of state, national security adviser, and other officials have made statements on all these issues that differ from those of the president. For that matter, the president has made statements that differ from other statements he’s made. We have no policy, we have no principles; neither allies nor do adversaries have a sense of what we might do under certain circumstances.
This is one reason the nation’s top military officers feel obligated to speak their minds on matters that generally don’t require – or call for – their commentary. There is a vacuum – a miasma of confusion and chaos – at the top of the civilian command. This gives the officers no comfort. They really don’t like being put in this sort of spot. But when the vacuum of authority is so palpable, when the president makes statements so at odds with fundamental principles, then they feel a duty to speak out – if just to remind the men and women under their command that those principles still hold, regardless of whatever signals they might glean from the commander in chief.
That’s where the real drama is:
Officers have an obligation to obey a commander’s (including the president’s) “lawful orders” and most officers want to fulfill this obligation. But what are Trump’s real orders? What are his priorities and policies? Nobody knows, not even those around him, perhaps not even he himself. Yet Trump has the constitutional authority to order troops into combat and to launch nuclear missiles toward their targets.
Is that drama enough? The reporting has shifted to tales of vivid complex characters dealing with crises that, in the end, are personal – about values and integrity – about saving their businesses, or the economy, or the country, but are really tales about saving their souls. They are also tales from the crypt – horror stories about a dead presidency, or what may be a dead country.