The Memo: Trump’s remarks spark questions about staff

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE collapsed two advisory councils on Wednesday amid a rush of resignations over the Charlottesville controversy. Speculation is rife that dissatisfaction within the administration itself could also lead to departures.

No one had resigned from the White House staff as of early Wednesday evening but across Washington a broader conversation is going on. It concerns the degree to which Republican political professionals believe association with the Trump administration will stain their reputations — perhaps forever.

While the members of Washington’s political class typically flock like moths to the flame of power, there are widespread concerns that the Trump administration may be so aberrational as to taint those who serve it. 


Two of the leading GOP establishment figures who joined the administration, Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus, both struggled with Trump’s volatility and White House factionalism. 

Priebus has been replaced as chief of staff by John Kelly — who is reported to be upset at Trump’s remarks on Tuesday. Spicer, the former press secretary, announced last month that he would leave the White House.

For younger staffers, the career danger may be even more acute, according to one D.C.-based GOP strategist.

“It’s more of a problem for those who didn’t have a well-developed resumé or reputation prior to joining the administration,” this source said. “Reince, for example, will be fine. But if this is the first or second slug on your resumé, you could run into some roadblocks.”

Amid the Charlottesville controversy, the White House announced on Wednesday morning that Hope Hicks would take over as interim communications director. The position had been vacant since the end of the short, tumultuous tenure of Anthony Scaramucci.

Hicks is even more of a Trump loyalist than Scaramucci — she has been with the president since before he launched his White House bid. But she also shares with Scaramucci a lack of experience in political communications management for anyone other than her boss.

“She has never been a communications director for anybody, much less the White House,” said Rick Tyler, who served in that role for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down GOP lawmakers join social media app billed as alternative to Big Tech MORE’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign. “The fact that they named her now makes sense, because they might not have been able to find anyone more qualified who was willing to do it.”

Those issues will only have intensified with the current firestorm.

Speaking from Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, the president asserted that there were “very fine people” on both sides of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. A 32-year-old counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed on Saturday after being hit by a car allegedly driven by a man with far-right views. 

Her death came amid rallies — including a torch-bearing parade at the University of Virginia on Friday night — that had the avowed aim to “Unite the Right.” Neo-Nazis and other racist groups were among those taking part. 

The event also drew anti-fascist demonstrators onto the streets. 

Asked whether what he termed the “alt-left” were as bad as neo-Nazis, Trump responded: “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”

His remarks drew fierce criticism, even from members of his own party.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) each released a statement rebuking Trump, though neither man named him. “There are no good neo-nazis,” McConnell said in a statement, while Ryan tweeted: “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive.”

Former President George W. Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, released a joint statement asserting that “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism and hatred in all forms.”

A host of GOP lawmakers joined in the chorus of condemnation, eager to distance themselves from Trump’s position.

Corporate leaders headed for the exit, too. Eight members of the president’s manufacturing council had resigned before Trump pulled the plug on the body. The Strategic and Policy Forum also collapsed.

The exodus had begun on Monday, when Kenneth Frazier, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Merck, announced his resignation. Frazier’s statement stated he wanted to “take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

The resignation of Frazier, who is black, came in the wake of Trump’s initial statement on Charlottesville, which was widely criticized as equivocal. Trump first punched back on Twitter, saying that Frazier would now have more time to “lower ripoff drug prices.” 

The president then delivered a more conciliatory statement later on Monday before doubling down on his original, controversial stance on Charlottesville again on Tuesday.

Peter Jaworski, who teaches business ethics at Georgetown University, said that Frazier’s initial resignation was the catalyzing event for the others that followed. 

He argued that joining an advisory council for any particular president is not necessarily seen as an overtly political act, but that this calculus can easily change for corporate leaders.

“As soon as one of them resigns and says ‘this is why I’m resigning’ — in this case, as a direct result of what happened in Charlottesville — then there is a lot of pressure on the remainder of the business leaders to take a stance on the issue.”

Despite the furor, some sources in Trump’s orbit are unsurprised there have been no high-profile political resignations so far. 

One person familiar with the White House’s internal dynamics noted that staffers had stuck by the president through numerous storms so far, so there was no real reason to assume that the latest controversy would be a bridge too far.

But the trouble is far from over. 

John Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden Biden taps Obama alums for high-level campaign positions: report Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump MORE and also worked at a senior level during President George W. Bush’s administration, branded Trump’s remarks “a national disgrace” in a message to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, first reported Wednesday.

Tyler, the GOP strategist, said that administration staffers who might be eyeing the exits could not even take solace from solid legislative achievements.

Trump, Tyler argued, simply lacked the skill set to be an effective president. For staffers, he added, “at that level, you go in because you believe in the president — you believe in his vision and his agenda.”

“If you come to the conclusion that those things are not going to happen, what are you doing there?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.