Those who work for a corrupt political administration can expect to have their own careers damaged. There were many warnings about this prior to Trump's inauguration. One of the early casualties was campaign manager Paul Manafort, who resigned several months before the election over concerns about his connections to Russia and, two years later, remains under increasing legal pressure.
Upon Trump's inauguration in January 2017, Republican commentator and former Bush speechwriter David Frum identified four personal risks of associating with the new administration: exposure to Trump's "finances...including tax and corruption investigations"; to his "clandestine contacts with hostile foreign governments"; to enabling his lies, especially if they become illegal, such as when he speaks to Congress or speaks under oath; and to his general disregard for the law.
"A law-abiding person will want to stay as far as possible from the personal service of President Trump. As demonstrated by the sad example of Press Secretary Sean Spicer spouting glaring lies on his first day on the job, this president will demand that his aides do improper things — and the low standards of integrity in Trump's entourage create a culture of conformity to those demands.
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Good people can do the right thing even under pressure. But be aware: The pressure to do the wrong thing can be intense — and the closer one approaches to the center of presidential power and prestige, the more intense the pressure becomes. It's easy to imagine that you’d emulate Walters when reading the book he wrote four decades after the fact. But in the moment? In the Oval Office? Face to face with the president of the United States?
So maybe the very first thing to consider, if the invitation comes, is this: How well do you know yourself? How sure are you that you indeed would say no?
And then humbly consider this second troubling question: If the Trump administration were as convinced as you are that you would do the right thing — would they have asked you in the first place?
Reflecting on a first week in office that included "big splashy pronouncements such as announcing a wall that he would force Mexico to pay for, even as the Mexican foreign minister held talks with American officials in Washington" and "quiet, but no less dangerous bureaucratic orders, such as kicking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of meetings of the Principals’ Committee, the senior foreign-policy decision-making group below the president, while inserting his chief ideologist, Steve Bannon, into them," Eliot A. Cohen wrote: "In an epic week beginning with a dark and divisive inaugural speech, extraordinary attacks on a free press, a visit to the CIA that dishonored a monument to anonymous heroes who paid the ultimate price, and now an attempt to ban selected groups of Muslims (including interpreters who served with our forces in Iraq and those with green cards, though not those from countries with Trump hotels, or from really indispensable states like Saudi Arabia), he has lived down to expectations."
He added that the president embodies the opposite of "reverence for the truth" and "sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness."
"Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have."
"To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. ... To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction."
Eliot Cohen also warned professional conservatives: "Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it." Indeed: "Many conservative foreign-policy and national-security experts saw the dangers last spring and summer, which is why we signed letters denouncing not Trump’s policies but his temperament; not his program but his character." He predicts that this president will "fail" because: "With every act he makes new enemies for himself and strengthens their commitment; he has his followers, but he gains no new friends."
Traditionally, Senate-confirmed officials submit resignation letters when a new president takes office, with the expectation that nonpartisan people will be kept on board, since "[o]nly career officials have the decades of institutional knowledge required to keep the nation’s agencies running," Ronan Farrow wrote in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Foreign Service officers must eventually have a presidentially-appointed job or, eventually, be forced to retire. Not being given a job means the same thing as being fired. One diplomat said she was informed: "Your assignments are broken. Who knows if you have your next job, maybe you don’t. It’s utter chaos. And it’s out of the blue. No reason." Many dismissals happened around the time of Rex Tillerson's Feb. 1, 2017 confirmation as Secretary of State; Tillerson would later claim not to have been aware of some of these dismissals. Farrow wrote: “In the first days of 2018, when I asked Tillerson about Countryman and the wave of forced retirements, the secretary of state stared at me, unblinking, then said: 'I’m not familiar with that one.' A little over a month later, Tillerson was gone too: another casualty of a fickle president and a State Department in disarray.”
In February 2017, Paul Waldman said of the President that "the idea of him having a coherent ideology is absurd" and that what he has instead is "a remarkable lack of human virtues and an even more remarkable set of character flaws". If there were a terrorist attack,
"he won't try to calm people down or remind them of how safe we are. He'll do exactly the opposite: ramp up people's fear and anger, using the attack (now matter how minor it might have been) as justification for a range of policy moves. He said during the campaign that he wanted to put mosques under surveillance; that could be just the start of a range of harsh actions directed at American Muslims. ... And given his regular, personal attacks on judges that don't rule as he'd like, there's a genuine question of whether he'd obey lawful court orders that restrained him in a situation where he felt he had the advantage. ...there will be some kind of attack eventually, and Trump will try to exploit it. The more we understand that now, the better prepared we'll be to push back when the time comes."
Allan J. Lichtman wrote in his book The Case for Impeachment, published in April 2017:
"Even early in his presidency, Donald Trump exhibits the same tendencies that led Nixon to violate the most basic standards of morality and threaten the foundations of our democracy. Both Nixon and Trump exhibited a determination to never quit, to win at all costs, to attack and never back down, and to flout conventional rules and restraints. But as ambitious and headstrong as they were, they also shared a compulsion to deflect blame, and they were riddled with insecurities. They exploited the resentments of white working class Americans and split the world into enemies and loyalists. In the first month of his presidency Trump talked more about ‘enemies’ than any other president in history. Neither man allowed the law, the truth, the free press, or the potential for collateral damage to others to impede their personal agendas. They cared little about ideology but very much about adulation and power. They had little use for checks and balances and stretched the reach of presidential authority to its outer limits. They obsessed over secrecy and thirsted for control without dissent."
"Working for Trump means that one’s credibility is likely to be damaged, so there is a kind of moral calculation that any Trump supporter must make: Does working for him serve some higher purpose that outweighs the price of reputational loss?
There is a hierarchy of justifications for backing Trump. At the bottom are the spokespeople and purely political officials who are almost instantly discredited, because they are forced to defend the statements of a President who routinely lies and manufactures nonsensical versions of events. Sean Spicer learned this on his first day on the job, when Trump sent him into the White House briefing room to tell the press lies about Inauguration-crowd sizes. He never recovered. But there was also no higher purpose for which Spicer could claim he was serving Trump, except that he was a political-communications official, and being the White House spokesman is the top prize in that profession. Republicans in Congress are a little farther up the pyramid. ... They justify their support by noting that Trump will implement the core Republican agenda, and that alone is worth the price of a person at least some of them believe is unfit to be President.
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The tougher cases are at the top of the pyramid. The government needs to be staffed, and, especially in positions of national security, it’s hard to argue against anyone taking a senior position at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the National Security Council to insure that Trump’s worst instincts are contained."
An alarming number of departures have indeed steadily come to pass. Elizabeth Shackelford, a political officer for the U.S. State Department's mission to Somalia, wrote a resignation letter on Nov. 7, 2017 to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying that the damage to the U.S. reputation under the Trump administration "is visible every day in Mission Somalia, my current post, where State’s diplomatic influence, on the country and within our own interagency, is waning." Noting that other diplomats have left the agency, she asked Tillerson to "stem the bleeding" or else "follow me out the door.” Tillerson was fired the following March; there were many reports that he learned that he was fired at the same moment the rest of the nation did, that is, when Trump tweeted it. In May, addressing the Virginia Military Institute, Tillerson said: "If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom."
In November 2017, Michelle Goldberg published this opinion in the New York Times:
"Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that it was a mistake to infer that what we’ve seen so far of the Trump administration will be 'as bad as it gets.' As time goes on, he wrote, 'Trump will find people who will empower him, instead of trying to contain him. Some of these will be junior officials who gain experience. Others may be opportunists who see a chance to gain high office by pledging to be more of a loyalist than the current cabinet.'"
A year after the inauguration, on the morning of Jan. 29, 2018, David Frum once again had dim expectations for the State of the Union to be given that night. "Look, if President Trump gets through the hour without putting a fork in somebody’s eye he will be praised as the most presidential president since the most presidential president," he said. He went on to say: "We all know what he is, we all know why he’s president, and what got him into that job. So, I think the question for all of us is how do we protect the country during the remainder of the presidency. There are no serious questions left about what kind of person he is.”
There have been at least 29 "high-profile" departures as of May 2018. Those who work for this president are learning their lessons.
"Advice for Those Weighing Jobs in the Trump Administration: Assessing the risks of service." David Frum, The Atlantic, Jan. 28, 2017.
"A Clarifying Moment in American History." Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, Jan. 29, 2017.
"Beware Trump's Reichstag fire," Paul Waldman, The Week, Feb. 7, 2017.
Allan J. Lichtman. The Case for Impeachment. Dey Street Books, April 18, 2017. p. 21.
"John Kelly and the Dangerous Moral Calculus of Working for Trump", Ryan Lizza, New Yorker, October 20, 2017.
Ex-Bush speechwriter sets low bar for Trump’s SOTU: ‘As long as he doesn’t poke someone in the eye with a fork,’ Sarah K. Burris, Raw Story, Jan. 29, 2018.