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Analysis: The downside of Trump firing so many people

By James Hohmann | Washington Post
On “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump only fired 15 contestants each season. As president, he’s fired Cabinet secretaries and White House aides at a much higher rate.
The historically high level of turnover that’s characterized the past 16 months has created bad blood and future risk for Trump. Several people who got pushed out unceremoniously, including via Twitter, are now publicly, if implicitly, criticizing him. While most casualties of Trump’s chaotic administration have remained loyal, they are liabilities who could become land mines down the road.
Rex Tillerson ‘s commencement speech at the Virginia Military Institute underscores the potential peril. The former secretary of state, fired in March, did not mention Trump by name on Wednesday. He didn’t need to. “As I reflect upon the state of American democracy, I observe a growing crisis of ethics and integrity,” he said.
He did cite John 8:32 twice: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Free to speak his truth, Tillerson added: “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America. If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society, and among our leaders in both the public and private sector, and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector, then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”
The 66-year-old, who has mostly been at his Texas ranch since leaving “the swamp” of Washington, is now clearly thinking more about his own legacy than Trump’s political future.
“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,” Tillerson said. “This is the life of nondemocratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth. . . . A responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what the truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hopeful outcomes made in shallow promises; but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.”
Tillerson’s relationship with Trump was fraught. He was widely seen as a short-timer when NBC reported in October that he called Trump a “moron” after a meeting. Tillerson never denied making the remark.
There were conflicting accounts of how exactly he found out he had lost his job. The White House said he received a call from Chief of Staff John Kelly while traveling in Africa to cut short his trip. Tillerson said he received a call from Trump more than three hours after his firing was first reported by The Washington Post and announced minutes later via a presidential tweet.
He had agreed to speak at the school in Lexington, Virginia, several months ago – before his termination. Doubtlessly, he would have delivered a different message if he was still the nation’s chief diplomat. The comments also would probably have generated much more buzz if they hadn’t come on one of the newsiest days of the Trump presidency.
“An essential tenet of a free society, a free people, is access to the truth,” Tillerson said. “A government structure and a societal understanding that freedom to seek the truth is the very essence of freedom itself. . . . It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society, comprised of richly diverse peoples, that those free peoples can explore and find solutions to the very challenges confronting the complex society of free people.”
Referring to the military school’s strong honor code, he said: “Without personal honor, there is no leadership. But a warning to you as you leave this place – a place where the person sitting on either side of you shares that understanding. You will now enter a world where, sadly, that is not always the case. And your commitment to this high standard of ethical behavior and integrity will be tested.”
Tillerson urged the cadets to “carefully consider the values and the culture of the organizations in which you seek to work.” “Look for employers who set high standards for ethical conduct,” he concluded.
Tillerson is not the first, and he will not be the last. David Shulkin went on a media blitz immediately after Trump fired him, also in March, as Veterans Affairs secretary. The holdover from the Obama administration submitted an op-ed to the New York Times decrying the administration’s push to privatize veterans care before appearing on NPR, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” CNN and more. He blamed his firing not on any ethical problems but clashes with Trump political appointees.
“Privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea,” Shulkin wrote in his op-ed. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”
“As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought,” he concluded. “It should not be this hard to serve your country.”
Shulkin told NPR that being let go liberated him. The VA’s inspector general had issued a report in February that blasted Shulkin for taking a fancy European trip with his wife on the taxpayer dime and accepting Wimbledon tickets as a gift. “I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House, who told me that they didn’t want me responding,” Shulkin complained.
Omarosa Manigault-Newman appeared as a contestant on CBS’s “Celebrity Big Brother” just a few weeks after she was escorted out of the White House. The former “Apprentice” star said Trump’s tweets were worrisome and that she would never vote for him again: “Oh no, never. In a million years, never.” Asked if everything is going to be okay, she said: “No, it’s not going to be okay. It’s not. It’s so bad.”
“I’m thinking of writing a tell-all sometime,” she told her castmates in another episode. “I have to tell my truth. I’m tired of being muted.”
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon got excommunicated by Trump over negative quotes he gave to Michael Wolff for his January book “Fire and Fury” about the president and his kids. Among other things, Bannon said Trump acts “like a 9-year-old.” Trump replied: “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
Reince Priebus certainly didn’t go as far as Bannon, but Trump’s first chief of staff made critical remarks about the president in an interview for another book. He said the disarray on the inside is even worse than the public knows. “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Priebus told Chris Whipple for the paperback version of his book “The Gatekeepers.” “The idea that he was suddenly going to accept an immediate and elaborate staff structure regulating every minute of his life was never in the cards,” Priebus said. Whipple wrote in a piece for March’s Vanity Fair that Priebus was nervous and repeatedly asked, “This is all off the record, right?” “He later agreed to be quoted,” Whipple added.
Sam Nunberg never worked in the White House, but the former Trump campaign aide still did a media blitz in March after talking with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of prosecutors. He said the president “may have done something” illegal, but he’s not sure. Fired in 2015 over racially charged Facebook posts, Nunberg also complained to The Post that Trump – who he called an “idiot” – had treated him terribly and would come to regret it.
There are, of course, much more consequential officials who have been fired by Trump and publicly criticized him after leaving the government, but he didn’t choose them to be part of his team. First among them, of course, is former FBI director James Comey . But also in this category are people who have become Washington Famous, from Sally Yates to Preet Bharara . Then, in March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe a little more than 24 hours before McCabe was set to retire. McCabe responded days later in an op-ed for The Post.
Many other Trump veterans speak negatively about him on background to avoid drawing his ire. Perhaps others who have not criticized him publicly want to maintain access. Many who get fired later drift back into Trump’s orbit, after all. Corey Lewandowki, who Trump fired as his first campaign manager, is still lingering around years later. Perhaps another factor is that some staffers have been forced to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Others have not spoken publicly, but they could still undermine the president: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn , for example, agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller as part of a plea deal. It’s still unknown what he offered up, but it could be more impactful than any tell-all.
Of course, there is a long history of former White House aides dishing dirt after they leave 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. After Trump disowned Bannon in January, the New York Times’s Peter Baker recalled six analogues from past administrations:
“In President George W. Bush’s last year in office, his former press secretary, Scott McClellan, wrote a tell-all book concluding that the Iraq War was a ‘serious strategic blunder’ based on the ‘ambition, certitude and self-deceit” of a White House that was not fully honest with the American people. . . .
“Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, James Fallows, wrote a trenchant piece in the Atlantic Monthly called ‘The Passionless Presidency,’ portraying his former boss as a good man but an ineffective chief executive.
“Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, wrote a book describing an amiable but inattentive and unsophisticated president whose funny math disguised rising deficits. Perhaps more vexing for Mr. Reagan was the score-settling memoir of Donald T. Regan, his second chief of staff at the White House who was pushed out during the Iran-contra scandal. Mr. Regan’s revelation that Nancy Reagan had influenced the president’s schedule based on advice from her astrologer infuriated the president.
” . . . [T]here was truth to the sometimes unsettling depiction of Bill Clinton’s White House by his former senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, whose memoir described his disillusionment with a president who recklessly risked his policy agenda for extramarital sex. When that book was released, Mr. Stephanopoulos’s former White House colleagues stayed away from the launch party lest they risk Mr. Clinton’s ire.
“Leon E. Panetta may hold a record of some sort by writing two tell-all memoirs of his time in two presidential administrations 43 years apart. The first was a scathing description of his service as a civil rights official under Richard M. Nixon that ended when Mr. Panetta was pushed out. The second was a more respectful but at times unflattering portrayal of his experiences as C.I.A. director and defense secretary for Barack Obama, whom he deemed smart but vacillating and overly cautious.”
What’s unusual is that so many of these kinds of things have happened to Trump in his first year.
Many who closely followed Tillerson’s tenure criticized his commencement speech as rich and revisionist. A lot of journalists assigned to the Foggy Bottom beat noted that the secretary kept them at arm’s length, broke with tradition by not traveling with press and was unusually secretive.
From CNN’s senior diplomatic correspondent:
Michelle Kosinski tweeted “Fired SecState Rex Tillerson calls for a “fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts.” (However this is the guy who didn’t want us on his plane)”
An editor at Der Spiegel:
Mathieu von Rohr tweeted “If this is how he feels, why did he stay on as Secretary of State for so long?”

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