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The impossible task of being on Trump's staff

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

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The United States is in the middle of the biggest economic and health emergency since perhaps the Civil War. This is the exactly the moment when you would ordinarily hope a president was starting his fourth year. By this point in the term, any competent president would have presumably sorted out who was doing a good job and who was not, and crafted a veteran team adept at running the executive branch of the federal government.

That makes the Trump administration all the more striking. We already know about the abnormally high burn rate of staffers in this administration. The competency gap between those still in and those who have left is equally striking.

Consider the reaction to the coronavirus. Sure, trade adviser Peter Navarro warned about the pandemic. The problem is, because he's Peter Navarro, it was impossible for him to convince anyone else that he was the stopped clock. In the months leading up to the current moment, the Trump staffers paying the best attention to the coronavirus were the ones who had left the administration. Former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert was early in warning about the dangers of a pandemic, as was former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb. As Politico's Meredith McGraw noted a few weeks ago, "The ominous message coming from former administration officials often stood in contrast to the upbeat White House narrative."

McGraw suggested "the disconnect is perhaps an example of the evolution of Trump's administration — dissenting voices have fallen away in favor of those more willing to toe the Trump line." However, even this has not proved to be a perfect guide to who stays and who goes. As press secretary, Stephanie Grisham proved to be an even bigger toady than Sarah Sanders. She never held a televised news briefing. In response to some criticisms from former White House chief of staff John Kelly, Grisham said, "I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President." That's loyalty — and yet, with the arrival of new chief of staff Mark Meadows, Grisham is gone from the West Wing.

For the object lesson of the impossibility of staffing Trump, consider the odyssey of acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly. He was made acting secretary only after his predecessor, Richard Spencer, was fired over disagreeing with Trump's intervention into the military justice system. (Later, Spencer wrote, in a commentary in The Washington Post, that "the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.")

After that inauspicious start, Modly was put in a tough spot after the San Francisco Chronicle's Matthias Gafni and Joe Garofoli reported on an explosive letter that the commander of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt sent to Navy officials pleading for assistance in response to the coronavirus spreading across his carrier. Capt. Brett Crozier wrote, "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors."

In response, Modly told the Chronicle that "we don't disagree with the [captain] on that ship." It quickly became clear, however, that Modly was not pleased with the letter going public and blamed Crozier. On Friday, Modly had relieved Crozier of his command, explaining at a news conference that the captain had displayed "poor judgment" and that "we do and we should expect more from the commanding officers of our aircraft carriers."

Modly acted against the advice of both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday. Still, there might have been hidden aspects of this case that made Crozier's actions seem worthy of questioning. The Post's Dan Lamothe and Paul Sonne did an excellent job on April 6 of providing background context to Crozier's removal.

Modly firebombed whatever mitigating circumstances might have existed with two highly questionable actions. First, he called Post columnist David Ignatius to explain why he acted the way he did. In his account, Modly explicitly referenced the need to cater to Donald Trump's whims:

"Modly explained that his predecessor, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, 'lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president' in the Gallagher case. 'I didn't want that to happen again.' The acting secretary reiterated the point later in the conversation: 'I put myself in the president's shoes. I considered how the president felt like he needed to get involved in Navy decisions [in the Gallagher case and the Spencer firing]. I didn't want that to happen again.'

"Modly said he 'had no discussions with anyone at the White House prior to making the decision' to relieve Crozier. Referring to his boss, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, he said: 'That is Secretary Esper's job, not mine.' Navy sources had said Modly told a colleague that Trump 'wants him [Crozier] fired,' and though Modly denied getting any direct message to that effect, he clearly understood that Trump was unhappy with the uproar surrounding the Roosevelt."

His next screw-up was to mimic his commander in chief's style in response to the rousing crew send-off that Crozier received after he was stripped of his command. Modly decided to fly to Guam to address the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt in a profanity-laden speech, in which he suggested either Crozier was "too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this." Modly also complained about the drama this had caused in Washington and blasted the news media and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The effect of this speech on the crew was not good, the New York Times reported:

"When his 15-minute speech was over, signing off with a tepid 'Go Navy,' Mr. Modly had effectively drawn an invisible line between him and the more than 4,800 crew members of the Roosevelt, one crew member said. This sailor added that many of the crew thought Mr. Modly had called them stupid for putting so much faith in their commanding officer. After Mr. Modly's speech, junior sailors approached the crew member, he said, looking to leave the service after their first enlistment.

"Mr. Modly did not tour the ship, and practically no one, especially those in the lower ranks, even saw him. He was gone in less than 30 minutes."

Modly stood by his words - until he didn't and apologized for them. Twenty-four hours later, he was gone.

The moral of this story is that there are three ways to try to staff Trump at this point, and two of them will end badly. The first way is to try to hold firm to one's principles, in which case, Modly is correct: You will eventually run afoul of the president.

The second way is to demonstrate complete fealty and try to adhere to his every whim. The problem with this is that the president suffers from poor impulse control. A lot of his instincts will be off the mark, and once he is forced to change course, he will need a fall guy. This is what happened to Modly.

The third way is to marry Ivanka.

This is not the best way to run the federal government in an emergency.

Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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