The yearning for dominance and praise in the character of Donald Trump is bottomless, a hunger that is never satisfied. Last week, the President gathered his Cabinet for a meeting with no other purpose than to praise him, to note the great “honor” and “blessing” of serving such a man as he. Trump nodded with grave self-satisfaction, accepting the serial hosannas as his daily due. But even as the members declared, Pyongyang-style, their everlasting gratitude and fealty to the Great Leader, this concocted dumb show of loyalty only served to suggest how unsustainable it all is.
The reason that this White House staff is so leaky, so prepared to express private anxiety and contempt, even while parading obeisance for the cameras, is that the President himself has so far been incapable of garnering its discretion or respect. Trump has made it plain that he is capable of turning his confused fury against anyone in his circle at any time. In a tweet on Friday morning, Trump confirmed that he is under investigation for firing the F.B.I. director James Comey but blamed the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, for the legal imbroglio that Trump himself has created. The President has fired a few aides, he has made known his disdain and disappointment at many others, and he will, undoubtedly, turn against more. Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, Sean Spicer–––who has not yet felt the lash? Trump’s egotism, his demand for one-way loyalty, and his incapacity to assume responsibility for his own untruths and mistakes were, his biographers make plain, his pattern in business and have proved to be his pattern as President. Veteran Washington reporters tell me that they have never experienced this kind of anxiety, regret, and sense of imminent personal doom among White House staffers––not to this degree, anyway. These troubled aides seem to think that they can help their own standing by turning on those around them––and that by retailing information anonymously they will be able to live with themselves after serving a President who has proved so disconnected from the truth and reality. I thought about Trump and his aides and councillors while reading “The Last of the President’s Men,” Bob Woodward’s 2015 book about Alexander Butterfield, a career Air Force officer who took a job as an assistant to Richard Nixon. He made the move less for ideological reasons than to indulge a yearning ambition to be “in the smoke”––to be at the locus of power, where decisions are made. As an undergraduate at U.C.L.A., Butterfield knew H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and, after serving in Vietnam and being stationed in Australia, he called on Haldeman, who was Nixon’s most important assistant. Haldeman made Butterfield his deputy. Butterfield got what every D.C. bureaucrat craves most––access. He worked on Nixon’s schedule, his paper flow, his travel; he offered advice, took orders, no matter how bizarre or transitory. Butterfield could not have been more “in the smoke” than he was then. He quickly discovered that Nixon was a fantastically weird and solitary man––rude, unthoughtful, broiling with resentment against the Eastern élites who had somehow wounded him, be it in his imagination or in fact. Butterfield had to manage Nixon’s relations with everyone from his Cabinet members to his wife, Pat, who on vacations resided separately from the President. Butterfield carried out Nixon’s most peculiar orders, whether it was barring a senior economic adviser from a White House faith service or making sure that Henry Kissinger was no longer seated at state dinners next to the most attractive woman at the occasion. (Nixon, who barely acknowledged, much less touched, his own wife in public, resented Kissinger’s public, and well-cultivated, image as a Washington sex symbol.) Butterfield experienced what all aides do, eventually, if they have the constant access; he was witness to the unguarded and, in Nixon’s case, the most unattractive behavior of a powerful man. Incident after incident revealed Nixon’s distaste for his fellow human beings, his racism and anti-Semitism, his overpowering personal suspicions, and his sad longings. Nixon, the most anti-social of men, needed a briefing memo just to make it through the pleasantries of a staff birthday party. One evening, Butterfield recounts to Woodward, he sat across from Nixon on a night trip back to the White House from Camp David on Marine One, and watched as Nixon, in one of the more discomfiting passages in the literature of sexual misbehavior, kept patting the bare legs of one of his secretaries, Beverly Kaye: “And he’s carrying on this small talk, but still patting her. Because I can see now, Nixon being Nixon, he doesn’t quite know how to stop. You know, to stop is an action in itself. So he’s pat, pat, patting her. And looking at her. And feeling––I can see he’s feeling more distressed all the time now about the situation he’s got himself into. So he keeps trying to make this small talk, and I can see him saying [to himself], you know, when the small talk is over, what the hell am I going to do? . . . She’s petrified. She’s never had this happen before. The president of the United States is patting her bare legs.” For how long? Woodward asks. “It seems like half the way to Washington but I’d say a long time, minutes.” When it appeared, “The Last of the President’s Men” did not receive the attention that was paid to some of Woodward’s early investigative books, but its intimacy and strangeness are very much worth returning to in the Trumpian moment––especially so if you are “blessed” with serving the current President. It is instructive. Butterfield, who is ninety-one and spent dozens of hours with Woodward recounting his experiences in proximity to a President who ran what was essentially a criminal operation from the White House, emerges from the telling as a man of complex motivations. He hardly charged forward in the early days of the scandal to tell what he knew. After Nixon’s reëlection, Butterfield left the White House to lead for the Federal Aviation Administration. But no matter how hard Butterfield worked to swallow his hurt feelings or to submerge his knowledge of the various “enemies lists” and the criminal coverup that took shape all around him during Watergate, no matter how hard he tried to rationalize Nixon’s venality with his achievements, particularly the diplomatic opening to China, he came to an almost inevitable moment of reckoning. In February, 1971, Nixon came up with the idea of putting a voice-activated taping system in his offices. Butterfield was charged with the installation. Haldeman told Butterfield that Nixon wanted the system installed on his telephones and in the Oval Office, his office in the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and the Lincoln Sitting Room. Kissinger was not to know; neither was his senior-most secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Only a few aides and the President were aware that no conversation was now truly confidential. Tiny holes were drilled into the President’s desktop to make way for the microphones. A set of Sony 800B tape recorders was set up in the White House basement. It was all for the sake of “history,” Nixon said. Kennedy and Johnson had taped selectively, but Nixon wanted it all for the record––his own records––but no one was to know. “Goddamn it, this cannot get out,” Nixon told Butterfield. “Mum’s the word.” In the end, of course, the tapes were Nixon’s undoing. In July, 1973, when Senate Watergate investigators asked Butterfield point-blank whether the White House taped conversations, Butterfield decided that his loyalty was not to the “cesspool” of Nixon’s White House but to the truth. And by confirming what so few knew––that there were tapes of Nixon and his cronies discussing Watergate and its coverup––Butterfield helped end a Presidency. Donald Trump now faces an investigation led by Robert Mueller, late of the F.B.I., and it could last many months. There is hardly any guarantee that the Administration will be found guilty of collusion with Russia, or with Russians, on any score; to predict that is to leap ahead of any publicly available evidence. Nor is there any guarantee, despite the testimony of Comey, and the testimony coming from other top national-security figures, that there will be a charge of obstruction of justice. This is bound to take some time. But, while Trump’s personality is different from Nixon’s, there is little evidence that the show of bogus loyalty performed last week has any basis in real life. Will Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Sessions, Kushner, and many others who have been battered in one way or another by Trump, keep their counsel? Will all of them risk their futures to protect someone whose focus is on himself alone and the rest be damned? Will none of them conclude that they are working for a President whose honesty is on a par with his loyalty to others? The government is already filled with public servants and bureaucrats who have found ways to protest this President’s actions and describe them to investigators and reporters. Will the inner circle follow? Have they already? Alexander Butterfield, day after day, would hear Nixon say, “We’re going to nail those sons of bitches.” He heard the lies; he watched the President try to crush his opponents with surveillance and dirty tricks. It disgusted him, but, for a good while, he assumed that the Presidency would endure; it was too powerful an institution to fall. But then momentum toward the truth began to build, “a wave,” Butterfield called it. He was, all along, ambivalent, torn between loyalty to the President––or, at least, to the idea of the Presidency––and a desire to do the right thing. When his time came, though, Alexander Butterfield testified.