President Donald Trump walks to the Oval Office of the White House.
"I just feel that loyalty is a very, very important part of life, not only of business but of life," said Donald Trump last year. He has been quoted saying similar things for years, and his underlings have learned to echo him. "This campaign, above all other things, is about loyalty," said Corey Lewandowski last April, when he was managing Trump's campaign. Two months later, Lewandowski was fired.
The truth is that Trump demands loyalty from everyone but gives it to no one. As he prowls the darkened hallways of the White House at night, alone with his thoughts, his wife and young son 200 miles away, the staff having retired for the night, it wouldn't be surprising if Trump is becoming increasingly convinced that no one is loyal to him and there's no one he can trust.
Almost no one, anyway. He has a small number of aides whose loyalty can't possibly be questioned, starting with Jared and Ivanka and extending to a few longtime factotums like Keith Schiller, who started as his bodyguard, then became his head of security, and now works in the White House in a vaguely defined role. It was Schiller whom Trump sent to FBI headquarters to deliver the letter informing James Comey he was being fired, and that firing is showing just how consumed Trump is with who's standing by him and who isn't.
According to Comey's associates, when the FBI director was summoned to a dinner at the White House in January, the president asked for a pledge of loyalty, one Comey declined to give. Though the White House denies that the exchange took place, it isn't hard to imagine. If Comey had expected a free pass for all but putting Trump in the White House, he was disappointed; you have to keep on proving to Trump that you're on his team. And by continuing the investigation into the Russia scandal, Comey showed he wasn't.
For Trump, loyalty has many dimensions, few more important than whether you might be taking some of the spotlight off him. "Look, he's a showboat, he's a grandstander," Trump said by way of explaining why Comey had to be fired—there's only room for one of those. He wasn't the first official to be the target of that particular Trump complaint; as The New York Times reported last month, "Mr. Trump remains annoyed by a February cover of Time magazine labeling [Steve] Bannon 'The Great Manipulator,' telling one visitor this month, 'That doesn't just happen'—a favored Trump expression for anger at subordinates who tend to their interests ahead of his."
But how different is Trump from any other politician? People whose offices are covered with pictures of themselves aren't known for putting their employees' needs first. But for Trump, it predated his entry into politics. As another Times report noted, "Mr. Trump's four-decade career in real estate, casinos and entertainment has given him a sense, associates say, that a tacit agreement exists between him and the people who work for him: In exchange for the wealth, fame and power he conveys to them, they agree to absorb incoming fire directed at him."
To a degree, that resembles the bargain made by those who work for any politician. They labor tirelessly to make the boss look good, and his successes and failures become part of their own record as their career proceeds. The politician can screw up in a thousand ways and will expect his staff to defend him with every ounce of energy they can muster, yet if a staffer makes a mistake, nobody blinks when they're shown the door. If the real test of loyalty is whether I continue to support you even when it costs me something, then the number of politicians who measure up is vanishingly small.
But while Washington is full of horrible bosses (there's a fair chance that humble, friendly politician you see on TV is screaming at his staff behind closed doors), few force their underlings into the kind of public humiliation Trump does, sending them out to repeat obvious lies and tell stories that he later contradicts himself. Which can't help but breed resentment, the kind that will someday show up in tell-all books (and I promise you, there will be more than one about this administration).
Trump started off with a loyalty deficit simply by virtue of who he was. Because he had not spent much time in politics, he arrived in the White House without a team of loyalists behind him. If you work your way up to the presidency, by the time you get there you'll bring with you a cadre of aides across areas of specialty—press relations, policy, administration, and so on—who have been with you for years and whose own identities are tied to yours. But while Trump has a few such aides like Schiller, most everyone who works for him today is someone who came into his orbit fairly recently. It's obvious that he doesn't trust them.
And maybe he shouldn't. This has been the leakiest White House in history, with aides regularly dishing to reporters on the behind-the-scenes infighting and screw-ups that have characterized this administration—often in ways that make their boss look like a complete buffoon. There are many reasons why, including staffers' desire to make clear that when something goes wrong, it wasn't their fault. But the ultimate responsibility lies with Trump himself, whose incompetence and ignorance have apparently created a chaotic environment where it's every person for themselves.
Which will feed the spiral of distrust: They talk to the press, he gets angry and assumes no one is loyal, he demands more loyalty, which further poisons the atmosphere and encourages his staffers to keep one eye on how tainted they'll be once they leave, and things keep getting worse.
But there's one group of people Trump knows he can rely on, and that's his core of supporters. "I have the most loyal people," he said during the campaign in a moment of bracing insight. "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's like, incredible."
Indeed it is. Through everything he did then and everything he's doing now, they have not deserted him. If they were a majority of the electorate, he'd have nothing to worry about. But they aren't.