Robinson: How long can Trump’s Cabinet endure humiliation?

Here’s the bargain: Humor him, suck up to him, and maybe Trump will let you make policy.

By Eugene Robinson

Do President Trump’s Cabinet members have to call him “Dear Leader” when graced by his august presence? Must they enter the Oval Office on bended knee? Do they weep with joy when he reaches out a delicate hand and pats their bowed heads?

One of the most appalling aspects of the Trump presidency is the sycophancy he requires of the officials who serve him. Trump demands not just loyalty but flattery. He insists that his courtiers treat his pronouncements, however absurd or offensive, as infallible holy writ. Members of his Cabinet have made a humiliating bargain: Humor him, suck up to him, and maybe — just maybe — he will leave you alone and let you make policy.

Or maybe not. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been working as best he knows how to address the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program through diplomacy. Trump undercut him with a tweet, saying Tillerson was “wasting his time.”

If Trump actually believes there is a viable military solution to the North Korea problem, he’s even crazier and more dangerous than I thought. More likely, in my view, is that Trump is annoyed at Tillerson for being insufficiently servile. I doubt the president has forgotten or forgiven Tillerson’s reaction to Trump’s deeply offensive “many sides” analysis of Charlottesville. “The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson coldly said.

And Trump clearly went ballistic Wednesday at the NBC News report that Tillerson, during a meeting with defense officials, had referred to him as a “moron.” The president loosed a flurry of tweets claiming the whole thing was “fake news,” culminating in a demand Thursday for a congressional investigation of news outlets whose reporting he does not like.

This is happening in the United States of America.

Tillerson is no diplomatic genius, but he is no flunky, either. He occupies an office established by the Constitution and once held by Thomas Jefferson. It was painful to see him have to call a news conference — which he never does — to deny that he actually called the president a moron. Except that he didn’t deny it. He later sent out a spokeswoman to say “the secretary does not use that type of language.”

Tillerson pushed back hard against the suggestion that he had considered resigning and been talked out of it by Vice President Pence. But widespread news reports tell a different story. Tillerson, whom Trump is said to sometimes deride as “Mr. Exxon,” never would have become chief executive of one of the biggest corporations in the world if he had valued blind loyalty over principled expertise in his subordinates. His business-world methodology has not translated well to government, but he approaches his duties in a sober and responsible way.

Trump does not. Retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, encouraged Tillerson to stay on because he, Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly “are those people that help separate our country from chaos.” Corker said he hoped the secretary of state would be more “supported” in his diplomatic efforts. Fat chance.

It’s hard to imagine Tillerson being willing to take much more of this, but other Cabinet members have made their peace with the Sun King’s demand for unctuous deference. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin looked as if he were in physical pain as he went on the Sunday shows and defended Trump’s demand for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to be fired.

Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, who almost quit after Charlottesville, told reporters he stayed on for the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to enact sweeping tax reform. Maybe the recently departed Tom Price stuck around so long at Health and Human Services for all the sweet travel perks.

What these officials don’t seem to fully grasp is that their policy initiatives can be undercut by the president at any time, and probably will. Look at budget director Mick Mulvaney, who has big ideas about shrinking government and the deficit. He didn’t anticipate having to wipe away Puerto Rico’s debt, which Trump offhandedly promised to do.

Someday we may look back and thank these officials for standing between our nation and the abyss. For now, I suppose they will continue telling Trump how strong he is, how wise, how special. Why, did you see him tossing those rolls of paper towels in Puerto Rico? Magnificent! The ungrateful NBA star Steph Curry, who still is not invited to the White House, can only dream of such form!

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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