Unusual days indeed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where several high-level administration officials have now taken fairly direct, surprisingly public aim at the President of the United States over his handling of the Charlottesville contretemps and its aftermath. Late last week, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn shocked Washington with his blunt criticism of the president's initial, vague, and equivocal statement on the hate rallies and deadly violence in Virginia. When it comes to "white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK," Cohn said, the Trump administration "must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups." His reference was not subtle. Days earlier, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley intimated that she wasn't pleased with the president's handling of the situation, telling reporters that she'd had a "personal conversation" with him on the matter, and that she'd "leave it at that." But perhaps most eye-opening was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's assertion on Fox News Sunday that the president speaks only for himself, not on behalf of "American values:"
Rex Tillerson, asked by Chris Wallace if the President's speaks for American values on race, "The President speaks for himself." Whoa.
Upon seeing a number of similarly astonished tweets over this quote, I wondered if some in the media may have been eliding some important mitigating context around that specific sentence from Tillerson. Perhaps the Secretary of State had alsodefended his boss and pushed back against critics in his answer -- yet people were narrowly seizing upon the snippet in which he re-states a variation on the familiar Trumpworld formulation that Trump is ultimately his own senior-most spokesman. Watching Tillerson's full exchange on the issue with anchor Chris Wallace, however, makes clear that his statement was unquestionably pointed in nature. He avers that the State Department and the American government do stand up for the country's fundamental values, but deliberately and explicitly excludes the president from that analysis when pressed, to the obvious surprise of Wallace:
Hume's "whoa" was totally justified. This sort of jarring slap-down of the president by a cabinet secretary is, shall we say, highly irregular in Washington. Then again, so is a president publicly trolling and attacking his own Attorney General for weeks, then notfiring him -- perhaps because other high-profile administration departures around that time made the optics inoperable (to say nothing of atypical warnings from Republicans in Congress). When people repeated the virtually-universal prediction that the Trump presidency would not be ordinary, I'm curious how many of them had a solid sense of the extent to which (and the speed with which) that statement would be repeatedly confirmed. Tillerson is no dummy, so he must have known that his response to that question would attract both media attention and Trump's wrath. So why toss chum in the water?
My educated guess is that he (a) feels a personal compulsion in his gut to separate himself from Trump on this controversy, and (b) senses that his tenure in the administration may be drawing to a close anyway, so he feels liberated to comment on current events without a pro-Trump filter. Do statements like this telegraph that "Rexit" will soon be upon us? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, now seems like as good a time as ever to revisit the theory that Trump thrives amid chaos, which is why his administration is strikingly, endlessly chaotic. Yuval Levin, a conservative intellectual and Bush White House alum, addresses this proposition in a lengthy post at National Review entitled, "A Government Ill-Executed." He writes that the Trump era might be described as mired in a "standing crisis," the source of which is "President Trump’s own disordered character:"