After decades in business, President Donald Trump has become accustomed to absolute power over his subordinates. He continues to demand loyalty in his new role as president, firing many of those who threaten to oppose him. To date, the long list of victims include former FBI Director James Comey, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, and former Attorney General Sally Yates, not to mention those who have left of their own accord.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could now join the list. At the end of July, CNN reported that Tillerson was considering leaving the administration over the president’s Twitter-based diplomacy and a series of policy disputes with the White House. Tillerson was especially troubled by the president’s politicized remarks at the Boy Scouts Jamboree, after which Tillerson, a former national president of the Boy Scouts, threatened not to return to Washington. Tensions heightened on October 4, when an NBC News report revealed that Tillerson called the president a “moron” in a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon.
Tillerson’s comments amount to a cardinal sin in Trump’s White House. Trump likes to be the epicenter of power, with all employees answering to him alone. “His identity is wrapped around being a winner. If you challenge him, or if he’s put into a losing position, now you begin to take Donald out of his comfort zone,” said Randall Pinkett, an ex-Trump employee and winner of season four of “The Apprentice,”in an interview with The Guardian. This CEO-style of leadership cannot triumph in the White House, where teamwork and trust are crucial to successful governance, especially with regards to building a coherent, consistent foreign policy with Tillerson.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to use his business experience to run the government “under budget and ahead of schedule.” Yet history has not proven former business executives well-equipped to succeed in the Oval Office. Bruce Miroff, a professor at the University of Albany, told the U.S. News and World Report that the few presidents who have had substantial business experience all struggled to succeed in their new position.
Miroff explains that, like Trump, these former high-level bosses are uncomfortable with their diminished authority in a system which sets limits on executive power. A president’s success relies on many factors outside their control, such as a legislative majority and the work of other institutions like the Federal Reserve. Moreover, Miroff told The Report, governmental success is measured by a number of factors other than profit, such as “advancement of rights [and] relationships with other countries.”
As Harvard Business School professor Gautam Mukunda explained to Vox, Trump has come to see all his relationships as one-time interactions with interchangeable actors. This explains his propensity for firing administration officials and battling with his own party. While this may work in the business world, in which he needs only make a deal with each individual once in order to turn a profit, democracy relies on relationships built on trust.
This is especially true of the relationship between the president and his top diplomat, in which the ability to work together can have crucial effects on foreign policy. This came into focus during a diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf in June. Just hours after Tillerson had urged a Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations to lift their blockade against Qatar, Trump publicly chided Qatar as a “funder of terrorism, and at a very high level,” blindsiding the secretary and jeopardizing diplomatic efforts to suppress a mounting crisis.
Similarly, Trump has berated Attorney General Jeff Sessions because of his decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into the president’s ties to Russia. The president acted on his long-held instinct to prioritize loyalty, yet Sessions has arguably been the most effective member of the Trump administration, quietly pushing along the president’s agenda.
Trump wants the presidency to be an extension of his authoritarian career in business, but as president, he cannot continue to prioritize loyalty over policy, acting like an emperor instead of the president of a democratic republic. Trump must accept the constraints on his power and allow his staff to serve his agenda before he undermines his own policy goals.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of State / U.S. Department of Defense