This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson speak with Olivier Knox, Chief Washington Correspondent for Yahoo! News. They look at presidential advisers, past and present, and how they have influenced politics and policy. From President Ulysses S. Grant's loyalty to his secretary, Orville Babcock, to the rise of Anthony Scaramucci in the Trump White House, advisers and aides have shaped presidencies, for better and for worse.
Ron Suskind: Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the first senator to endorse Donald Trump when Trump needed it desperately. He was, for the entire campaign, an incredibly loyal surrogate. If Trump doesn't think he's doing a good job, that's one thing. But to publicly mock and disparage him repeatedly in the last week — this seems cruel to me. I mean, let's get in his head. What is Trump thinking?
Olivier Knox: Well, that's a really good question. I mean, we know what the point of origin for this is. It's President Trump's deep, abiding frustration with the Russia story, the various investigations swirling around his White House which he views as attempts — nakedly partisan attempts — to undermine his legitimacy. The destination is completely unclear. The president's refusing to fire Jeff Sessions, he's refusing to say that he would like Jeff Sessions to resign. As you point out Jeff Sessions, former Senator from Alabama, someone widely credited with — I don't know that "inventing" Trumpism is right, but he certainly imposed some order onto it and defined it in a way that is familiar to us now as something that is deeply skeptical of immigration and of international trade. Donald Trump goes out to the Wall Street Journal and says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, he endorsed me, but you know what, I went to Alabama and there were 40,000 people cheering and so this wasn't an act of loyalty, it was just in his political interest."
Suskind: Yeah, it's almost like "I was doing Jeff a favor. I was big in Alabama, I was huge."
Knox: Right. What's really astonishing about the Wall Street Journal comments I think, is that it says essentially "I don't really care about Jeff Sessions' loyalty." I mean when you hear talk of a president prizing loyalty it almost always means that they prize loyalty to them, not that they are loyal back. But even by those standards this is pretty remarkable, and I really wonder what Jeff Sessions is thinking right now.
Heather Cox Richardson: He's got a real problem with Sessions, cause Sessions was supposed to protect him from the Russia investigation, and he recused himself. But at the same time Sessions is incredibly popular among his base. Breitbart, Drudge, who are already sliding away from support for the president, have made it very clear this week that they are not going to look at the loss of Jeff Sessions in a positive light. Is this a struggle between sort of the RNC leaders like Reince Priebus and the more establishment figures and the Trumpians, or this is just Donald Trump's business as usual?
Knox: Well there are a couple things to unpack here. The first one is one of the things [Trump] has singled out in his criticisms of Jeff Sessions is the absence of an investigation into leaks that are thought to come from the intelligence community. So let's watch to see if Jeff Sessions sort of breaks with protocol and announces publicly that there is a leak investigation going on. The second thing is that no matter what his intent is the effect on Capitol Hill has been to make basically every Republican say "Wow, if Jeff Sessions is this expendable then I'm, you know, being scraped off the President's shoe, essentially." And then the third thing is that you're right that he's not an ideologue, I would argue, except on two issues. One is trade, and one is immigration. Both of those he's commented on for twenty years plus, so we know he cares about those. But I can't really think of this Trump-Sessions thing as part of the split in the White House. And the reason for that is, as I said, Sessions really kind of was the bridge between the establishment and the hardcore base.
Richardson: I think if you look at the entire sweep of American history there are three kinds of aides that presidents tend to hire. The first, and the rarest thing, is when you hire aides and put them in your White House to keep them out of trouble. People that are running against you or who quite possible have the potential to break off some of your voters. You get them, as LBJ used to say, inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in. But then people also get advisers to give people alternative advice. So people like Lincoln deliberately brought in a team of rivals. FDR does this as well, and he would get people and pit them against each other so they would come out with a good idea. But then there's the thing that is most common, and that's when you hire people for their loyalty. And almost every president does that — we actually don't get real office staffs until FDR and the New Deal. Prior to the president had secretaries, private secretaries, and often people discuss them as if they are Chiefs of Staff but they're really not. But the point of those people was that they were loyal.
Knox: Well, you know, I keep telling people if you are a reporter and you are walking out of the White House after nightfall and you turn and look at that building and you don't feel a sense of being privileged, and a sense of awe, then you should probably quit. I would add a sense of responsibility as well. I think for a lot of these folks this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve the President of the United States. I think that this administration has been more brazen with verifiable falsehoods than others, but I would also caution everybody. One of the mistakes reporters made the last six months is to declare everything Donald Trump does unprecedented. My first job in reporting was covering impeachment, and that sure as heck felt unprecedented. I remember Press Secretary Mike McCurry telling reporters that he simply wasn't discussing any part of this with the President so that he wouldn't have to answer questions from behind the podium. And then I covered all eight years of George W. Bush. And then of course, I covered the last four years of Obama, so I wasn't at the White House for "If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor, if you like your plan you can keep your plan." What I tell people in general is that these folks are not your friends. They might at times be your advocates, but they're not your friends. They will tell as much truth as they need to. There are people who stand behind that podium who are very, very aware of their own personal integrity. And there are people who stand behind that podium and aren't.
Richardson: I think the more interesting parallel to this moment that we have right now is actually under the Grant administration. Ulysses S. Grant was a very loyal man. Grant was a Civil War general and he was very loyal to the men who served with him. And one of the men with whom he served was a guy named Orville Babcock. And Grant made Babcock his personal secretary. He'd been an aide-de-camp, and then he ended up being Grant's personal secretary, and Grant trusted him far more than what were known at the time as the establishment Republicans, the establishment Congressmen. Babcock was implicated in the big scandal of the Grant administration. It was known as the "Whiskey Ring." It was when a bunch of liquor distillers were essentially bribing IRS officials so they didn't have to pay taxes. And when Babcock got arrested and went to trial for his part in the Whiskey Ring, Grant wanted to go testify himself, personally, as the sitting president, because he was so loyal to Babcock. Well, and he was dissuaded from doing that because the idea of a sitting president going to testify in a kickback case over liquor was such that in the middle of the 1870's — people said you just can't possibly do that. So he didn't, but he did send testimony to that trial, and his administration never really fully recovered because he was so linked to this adviser.
Suskind: Well look, looking back on the Obama administration, one of the telltale moments is that in the early days of the Obama administration when he's learning how to be president — those first few months when he had all that political capital. What will he do with it? Well Obama digs in. He does his due diligence. And in late February, just a month into his presidency, he says, “You know, I think I know what I want to do. I want to break up these banks, starting with Citi." It was a cause of great consternation among his advisers. His two key advisers at that point were Larry Summers, his Chief Economic Adviser, and Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary. Both of whom had long histories in and around Wall Street. And at that moment, months after the Great Recession and the great crash of 2008, they split. Summers actually went with Obama, cause he sort of said, “Obama made a decision and I want to be on the winning team.” Geithner said, "This president doesn't know what he's doing. I'm an expert. He's not." They have a meeting that goes ten hours, twelve hours, fighting it out. And at the end of it, Obama says, "You know, I've made my decision. I want to break up Citibank." Three weeks pass, four weeks. There's a meeting in the Oval Office. Geithner's not there, everyone else is. And Obama says, you know, "What's going on with that Citibank breakup plan?" Christina Romer, who was Chief of the Council of Economic Advisers, looks over at Larry Summers, Chief Economic Adviser. They exchange glances. She shrugs. She says, "He ought to know, he's the president. Uh, Mr. President? There's actually no breakup plan for Citibank. They just, well, they haven't done one." Obama, "There better be!" He's livid! He doesn't get angry, he's a man of equanimity. What happened? Geithner slow-walked the president — that's the term of art. Advisers believing they know better.
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