Who in the White House Will Turn Against Donald Trump?

The yearning in the character of Donald Trump for dominance and praise
is bottomless, a hunger that is never satisfied. Last week, the
President gathered his Cabinet for a meeting with no other purpose than
to praise him, to note the great “honor” and “blessing” of serving such
a man as he. Trump nodded with grave self-satisfaction, accepting the
serial hosannas as his daily due. But even as the members declared,
Pyongyang-style, their everlasting gratitude and fealty to the Great
Leader, this concocted dumb show of loyalty only served to suggest how
unsustainable it all is.

The reason that this White House staff is so leaky, so prepared to
express private anxiety and contempt, even while parading obeisance for
the cameras, is that the President himself has so far been incapable of
garnering its discretion or respect. Trump has made it plain that he is
capable of turning his confused fury against anyone in his circle at any
time. In a tweet on Friday morning, Trump confirmed that he is under
investigation for firing the F.B.I. director James Comey, but blamed the
Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, for the legal imbroglio that
Trump himself has created. The President has fired a few aides, he has
made known his disdain and disappointment at many others, and he will,
undoubtedly, turn against more. Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jared
Kushner, Jeff Sessions, Sean Spicer­—who has not yet felt the lash?

Trump’s egotism, his demand for one-way loyalty, and his incapacity to
assume responsibility for his own untruths and mistakes were, his
biographers make plain, his pattern in business and have proved to be
his pattern as President.

Veteran Washington reporters tell me that they have never observed
this kind of anxiety, regret, and sense of imminent personal doom among
White House staffers—not to this degree, anyway. These troubled aides
seem to think that they can help their own standing by turning on those
around them—and that by retailing information anonymously they will be
able to live with themselves after serving a President who has proved so
disconnected from the truth and reality.

I thought about Trump and his aides and councillors while reading “The
Last of the President’s Men
Bob Woodward’s 2015 book about Alexander Butterfield, a career Air Force
officer who took a job as an assistant to Richard Nixon. He made the
move less for ideological reasons than to indulge a yearning ambition to
be “in the smoke”—to be at the locus of power, where decisions are

As an undergraduate, at U.C.L.A., Butterfield knew H. R. Haldeman and
John Ehrlichman, and, after serving in Vietnam and being stationed in
Australia, he called on Haldeman, who was Nixon’s most important
assistant. Haldeman made Butterfield his deputy. Butterfield got what
every D.C. bureaucrat craves most—access. He worked on Nixon’s
schedule, his paper flow, his travel; he offered advice, took orders, no
matter how bizarre or transitory. Butterfield could not have been more
“in the smoke” than he was then. He quickly discovered that Nixon was a
fantastically weird and solitary man—rude, unthoughtful, broiling with
resentment against the Eastern élites who had somehow wounded him, be it
in his imagination or in fact. Butterfield had to manage Nixon’s
relations with everyone from his Cabinet members to his wife, Pat, who
on vacations resided separately from the President. Butterfield carried
out Nixon’s most peculiar orders, whether they involved barring a senior
economic adviser from a White House faith service or making sure that
Henry Kissinger was no longer seated at state dinners next to the most
attractive woman at the occasion. (Nixon, who barely acknowledged, much
less touched, his own wife in public, resented Kissinger’s public, and
well-cultivated, image as a Washington sex symbol.)

Butterfield experienced what all aides do, eventually, if they have the
constant access; he was witness to the unguarded and, in Nixon’s case,
the most unattractive behavior of a powerful man. Incident after
incident revealed Nixon’s distaste for his fellow human beings, his
racism and anti-Semitism, his overpowering personal suspicions, and his
sad longings. Nixon, the most anti-social of men, needed a briefing memo
just to make it through the pleasantries of a staff birthday party. One
evening, Butterfield recounts to Woodward, he sat across from Nixon on a
night trip back to the White House from Camp David on Marine One, and
watched as Nixon, in one of the more discomfiting passages in the
literature of sexual misbehavior, kept patting the bare legs of one of
his secretaries, Beverly Kaye:

And he’s carrying on this small talk, but still patting her. Because
I can see now, Nixon being Nixon, he doesn’t quite know how to stop.
You know, to stop is an action in itself. So he’s pat, pat, patting
her. And looking at her. And feeling—I can see he’s feeling more
distressed all the time now about the situation he’s got himself into.
So he keeps trying to make this small talk, and I can see him saying
[to himself], you know, when the small talk is over, what the hell
am I going to do? . . . She’s petrified. She’s never had this happen
before. The president of the United States is patting her bare legs.

For how long? Woodward asks.

“It seems like half the way to Washington but I’d say a long time,

When it appeared, “The Last of the President’s Men” did not receive the
attention that was paid to some of Woodward’s early investigative books,
but its intimacy and strangeness are very much worth returning to in the
Trumpian moment—especially so if you are “blessed” with serving the
current President. It is instructive.

Butterfield, who is ninety-one and spent dozens of hours with Woodward
recounting his experiences in proximity to a President who ran what was
essentially a criminal operation from the White House, emerges from the
telling as a man of complex motivations. He hardly charged forward in
the early days of the scandal to tell what he knew. After Nixon’s
reëlection, Butterfield left the White House to lead the Federal
Aviation Administration. But no matter how hard Butterfield worked to
swallow his hurt feelings or to submerge his knowledge of the various
“enemies lists” and the criminal cover-up that took shape all around him
during Watergate, no matter how hard he tried to rationalize Nixon’s
venality with his achievements, particularly the diplomatic opening to
China, he came to an almost inevitable moment of reckoning.

In February, 1971, Nixon came up with the idea of putting a
voice-activated taping system in his offices. Butterfield was charged
with the installation. Haldeman told Butterfield that Nixon wanted the
system installed on his telephones and in the Oval Office, his office in
the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and the Lincoln Sitting
Room. Kissinger was not to know; neither was his senior-most secretary,
Rose Mary Woods. Only a few aides and the President were aware that no
conversation was now truly confidential. Tiny holes were drilled into
the President’s desktop to make way for the microphones. A set of Sony
800B tape recorders was set up in the White House basement.

It was all for the sake of “history,” Nixon said. Kennedy and Johnson
had taped selectively, but Nixon wanted it all for the record—his own
records—but no one was to know. “Goddamn it, this cannot get out,”
Nixon told Butterfield. “Mum’s the word.”

In the end, of course, the tapes were Nixon’s undoing. In July, 1973,
when Senate Watergate investigators asked Butterfield point-blank
whether the White House taped conversations, Butterfield decided that
his loyalty was not to the “cesspool” of Nixon’s White House but to the
truth. And by confirming what so few knew—that there were tapes of
Nixon and his cronies discussing Watergate and its cover-up—Butterfield
helped end a Presidency.

Donald Trump now faces an investigation led by Robert Mueller, late of
the F.B.I., and it could last many months. There is hardly any guarantee
that the Administration will be found guilty of collusion with Russia,
or with Russians, on any score; to predict that is to leap ahead of any
publicly available evidence. Nor is there any guarantee, despite the
testimony of Comey, and the testimony coming from other top
national-security figures, that there will be a charge of obstruction of
justice. This is bound to take some time.

But, while Trump’s personality is different from Nixon’s, there is
little evidence that the show of bogus loyalty performed last week has
any basis in real life. Will Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Sessions, Kushner,
and many others who have been battered in one way or another by Trump
keep their counsel? Will all of them risk their futures to protect
someone whose focus is on himself alone, the rest be damned? Will
none of them conclude that they are working for a President whose
honesty is on a par with his loyalty to others? The government is
already filled with public servants and bureaucrats who have found ways
to protest this President’s actions and describe them to investigators
and reporters. Will the inner circle follow? Have they already?

Alexander Butterfield, day after day, would hear Nixon say, “We’re going
to nail those sons of bitches.” He heard the lies; he watched the
President try to crush his opponents with surveillance and dirty tricks.
It disgusted him, but, for a good while, he assumed that the Presidency
would endure; it was too powerful an institution to fall. But then
momentum toward the truth began to build “a wave,” as Butterfield called
it. He was, all along, ambivalent, torn between loyalty to the
President—or, at least, to the idea of the Presidency—and a desire to
do the right thing. When his time came, though, Butterfield

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