The White House of ‘yes men’ the president presides over can’t save him from his worst impulses.
One made this observation of the people of Asia, that they were all slaves to one man, merely because they could not pronounce that syllable No. . . .
— Plutarch’s Morals, Vol. I
The recently released transcripts from the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry show an abiding concern with what President Trump said to his subordinates in conversations about Ukraine. But both investigators and voters should also be concerned with what the subordinates said back. To hear Trump’s retellings of conversations with aides, he is surrounded by flatterers who incessantly call him “sir” but never precede the honorific with “no.” If Trump possessed sufficient self-confidence to hire aides willing to challenge him, he might not be facing impeachment. Regardless of one’s views on whether he should remain in office, it is clear that flattery has served him poorly. He, as well as those who aspire to his office, should take note.
What remains unclear is whether, in any of the president’s conversations about Ukraine, any aide or friend refused his orders or counseled unequivocally against them. Everything we know about the Trump administration after nearly three years suggests not. Like much of the most damning evidence against Trump in the impeachment inquiry, the culture of sycophancy in his White House requires no investigation. The proof comes from his own public words and the words of those around him.
Recently, General John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, recalled that he warned Trump not to hire a replacement “who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached.” Denying that Kelly issued such a warning, Trump responded that if he had, “I would have thrown him out of the office.”
This stands as one of the more revealing statements about the character of both Trump and his administration. The important thing is not whether the exchange with Kelly actually occurred, but how Trump said he would have replied. Why would Kelly have been evicted from the Oval Office for speaking his mind? The president aspires to a faux toughness that is intolerant of dissent and consequently characteristic of weakness. A self-confident, truly strong leader would have appreciated his chief of staff’s independent mind and frank speech.
In this respect, Trump could learn a thing or two from his predecessors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom surrounded themselves with people who disagreed with them and with each other.
“Be no flatterer,” a teenaged Washington recorded in his “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” It was a principle of leadership for him as well. As president, his cabinet was broad enough to encompass Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, whose disagreements on economic and foreign policy were legion. Eulogizing Washington, his friend and fellow founder Gouverneur Morris praised the self-confidence required for the first president to surround himself with brilliance: “Leaving to feebler minds that splendor of genius, which, while it enlightens others, too often dazzles the possessor — he knew how best to use the rays which genius might emit, and carry into action its best conceptions.”
Lincoln knew how to organize and draw strength from competing opinions, too. He recruited a cabinet from among politicians who had opposed his bid for the presidency. His cabinet meetings were routinely forums for bitter disagreement. It was a sign of his self-confidence and skilled leadership that he harnessed these disputes to inform his decisions. By contrast, Trump’s cabinet meetings are characterized by obsequious, and often self-abasing, praise of the president.
That does not mean strong leaders preside over chaos. They are, rather, both willing and eager to be challenged, to invite differing views and, ultimately, to harmonize these perspectives into coherent policies for which they welcome accountability. Presidents are entitled to expect confidentiality in these disputes, something Trump, like most of his predecessors, has often not enjoyed. But they should encourage dissent regardless, on the understanding that they will ultimately decide and their subordinates will support the results of an honest process.
The self-confidence required to foster and preside over such a process is acutely important for presidents, who live in a state of gilded isolation in which supplicants and sycophants are a constant presence. Yet Trump has, one by one, removed advisers who stood up to or simply stalled him — often for those very offenses — while replacing them with exactly the type against whom Kelly warned.
Congressional Republicans who fawn over Trump, whether out of genuine infatuation or political self-interest, bear a special responsibility for the president’s errors. The Democratic impulse to find fault with his every move does not help in this regard, as it devalues the criticism he needs to hear while justifying a sense of permanent siege within his White House. It is also unhelpful for aides who cast themselves as defenders of the republic to wage bureaucratic warfare against the president, as many have reportedly done. Such behavior makes claims of “deep state” conspiracy more plausible, whereas confrontation or resignation would better serve the president. Still, the primary responsibility for correcting Trump lies not with his critics but rather with his confidantes. They would serve themselves and him better by heeding the aphorism Plutarch attributes to the Athenian statesman Phocion: “You cannot have for me both a friend and a flatterer.”
Trump’s recent cancellation of the White House subscriptions to critical newspapers was more a revelatory than a symbolic gesture. So are his attacks on Fox News personalities who deviate even slightly from his desired narrative. The resulting portrait is one of a president stewing in executive time and gazing constantly, like Narcissus, into the reflection of Fox and Friends to confirm what he already thinks. His staff helps, reportedly feeding him daily folders of favorable press clippings.
All this suggests that the most important trait of presidents may be the self-confidence Trump thus far has lacked. An important question to ask candidates for the office is: Which adviser last disagreed with you, and what was your response? Strong leaders do not reply by kicking dissenters to the curb. As Trump’s predicament demonstrates, the chief danger of sycophancy is not to the flatterer. It is to the flattered.