No one besides Donald Trump was going to ask Rex Tillerson to the prom. No one else was going to pin a corsage on Jeff Sessions, pick up Steven Mnuchin in a chauffeured limo, give a box of Godiva chocolates to Betsy DeVos.
A more conventional, responsible, admirable president would have looked right past them, at comelier options galore. On some level they know that. Trump certainly does. That’s his power over them — a poison in the heart of his cabinet. He gave them a chance and a dance that they weren’t going to get any other way. In return he demands a gratitude that’s unhealthy, a deference that’s unseemly.
Every presidential administration has its deadbeats and dysfunctions. None that I’ve observed has an ethos of abject servility like Trump’s. That’s what we witnessed over the weekend, when the obsequious handmaiden otherwise known as the vice president flew at taxpayer expense to his home state of Indiana for a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers.
Mike Pence merely pretended that he was in the mood for football. He was really in the market for cheap political theater. During the national anthem, when some players predictably took a knee, he took calculated offense, storming out of the stadium and doing his boss proud. Trump tweeted afterward that Pence had been obeying his orders.
Pence has a long and serious political résumé, but would another Republican president have tapped him for the No. 2 spot? I doubt it. I also doubt that another Republican president would have chosen Rick Perry for the Energy Department, Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development or a host of the people who are working — or worked — just below the cabinet level.
Sean Spicer? Anthony Scaramucci? They aren’t superstars who had been underutilized before. They’re opportunists who lunged for an adventure that they had probably never envisioned.
Unlike his predecessors, Trump didn’t have his pick of the crop. Some prospects didn’t want to be anywhere near such an egomaniacal, unprincipled man, while others were nonstarters because they’d publicly vented their doubts about him.
The team he assembled wasn’t all stars. With a few notable exceptions, it was a coalition of the willing, and a ragtag one at that. And then, through his example and erratic behavior this year, he systematically diminished these recruits. If they had pride and much of a reputation on their way into the administration, they’ll be lucky to hold on to tatters of either on their way out.
The most effective leaders extract the best from the people around them. Trump provokes the worst. Tom Price, his ousted health and human services secretary, was shady from the get-go, but still: Would he have acted quite so high-flying and mighty — all those regal seats on all those pricey charters — but for Trump, whose entire rule smacks of economically self-aggrandizing brand promotion and whose family is busting the Secret Service budget?
Would Mnuchin be so blasé about his own use of government planes? According to multiple reports, he charged the government $800,000 for military transport when commercial flights were available — and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, too, indulged in needlessly expensive air travel.
Would Scott Pruitt, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, have spent nearly $25,000 on some special phone booth? This fish rots from the bejeweled head.
And these people have become practiced at humiliation. Maybe their perks are Percocets for the pain.
Sessions twisted in the wind while Trump, in tweets and talk, rued that he’d ever appointed him attorney general and suggested that he might dismiss him any day. Spicer sucked up Trump’s boldly advertised displeasure with his comportment at the lectern and even the color of his suits.
Tillerson tucked his dignity into some sock drawer as Trump repeatedly contradicted his statements and undermined his authority. For Trump this was gleeful sport. He’s only as big as his ability to make his underlings look small.
Mnuchin signed on as his Treasury secretary to become his apologist, and was prodded to vouch for the president along lines having nothing to do with his portfolio. On a Sunday morning news show, he dutifully joined Trump’s campaign against pro football players who don’t stand for the anthem. In a public statement, he docilely claimed that there was no reason — none whatsoever! — to believe that Trump had any patience for neo-Nazis.
I flash back on that infamous cabinet meeting, when Trump coaxed those insane testimonials, and see more clearly than ever that he was establishing the terms of service: I strut, you slobber, for as long as I can stand you or you can stand it.
Which won’t be forever, and that’s the scariest part. Trump’s options will grow less attractive, not more. On the far side of this uncomely crowd, there’s an even sorrier, more simpering crew of replacements.