WASHINGTON — From a presidential administration's appointments we learn how it views itself. From an administration's departures we learn how it conducts itself. Honesty comes easier to those with little left to lose.
In this regard, the Trump administration offers much to analyze. The pace of disillusioned exits is rapid. And what the departing have chosen to emphasize reveals much about daily life in the executive branch.
In the case of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the complaint was an atmosphere toxic with cruelty. Trump made a habit of undermining his chief diplomat in public. (On negotiations with North Korea, the president once tweeted: "Save your energy, Rex. We'll do what has to be done.") Tillerson was fired via tweet — a first for the office once held by Thomas Jefferson. Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly told White House staffers that Tillerson received the news of his dismissal while on the toilet.
"This can be a very mean-spirited town," Tillerson said in his departure speech. He gave his farewell without mentioning the name of the man who appointed him. But the implication was clear enough. "Each of us gets to choose the person we want to be, and the way we want to be treated, and the way we will treat others," Tillerson concluded.
Jobs in the executive branch are hard enough without an added layer of stress caused by constant humiliation. But Trump emphasizes his own importance by diminishing those around him. So creative cruelty is essential to his management style. The result is fear, distrust and resentment — hardly a situation conducive to deliberation.
During his departure, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin made a similar point about civility. He was informed of his own firing just hours before Trump's termination tweet was posted, then the administration claimed he had resigned. "It should not be this hard to serve your country," he complained in a New York Times op ed.
But Shulkin also described an atmosphere, not just of cruelty, but of attempted corruption. He wrote of a "brutal power struggle" within his department with "political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what's best for veterans." Their goal was "to put VA health care in the hands of the private sector." And the reason for this, as Shulkin describes it, was not only ideological. "They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed," he said. "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."
To summarize: The departing head of the VA has accused swaggering White House appointees of trying to betray the interests of veterans for the financial benefit of favored individuals and businesses. A serious charge. But in the Trump administration's carnival of corruption, this barely rates as a sideshow.
The departure of Trump's second National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, brought a different sort of indictment. In his final public remarks, he was careful to preserve his ties to the president. But the topic he chose was Russia — particularly Russian cyberoperations against the U.S. and other NATO countries. And his judgment was harsh: "We have failed to impose sufficient costs" for such actions. The result? "The Kremlin's confidence is growing as its agents conduct their sustained campaign to undermine our confidence in ourselves and in one another."
For a national security adviser to make this statement in an administration where the president has been equivocal, even exculpatory, in his language about Russia is the most serious critique of all. In McMaster's view, Russia's President Vladimir Putin is engaging in a type of hybrid warfare that is "deliberately designed to achieve objectives while falling below the target state's threshold for military response." This has been enabled by some who "glamorize and apologize" for Russia's actions, and by nations that "have looked the other way."
In his farewell statement, McMaster — one of our country's deepest thinkers on the nature of warfare — described a sustained attack to which America has not responded with sufficient seriousness. This could only be interpreted as an implicit criticism of a president who has brought no urgency to the task and has a history of apologizing for Russian actions. ("Well, you think our country is so innocent?")
The composite image of the Trump administration left by these departing officials is damning — a picture of cruelty, attempted corruption and national weakness. Instead of hearing gratitude for the experience of a lifetime, we are getting distress signals.