Like whisperers in a tempest, conservative-minded officials across the breadth of Donald Trump’s government are letting it be known what they think of him, and some of it isn’t pretty.
But they are speaking oh so softly, in a kind of code, to a country that may only hear shouting.
Jim Mattis is just the latest in a string of leading lights from the conservative establishment to throw shade at Trump. As with others — the chief justice, a special counsel, various Republican lawmakers who hope to have a political future — the ex-Pentagon chief’s words are subtle, filtered through notions of duty, decorum, deference to history, the greater good.
Crack the code and you can sometimes see deep discomfort with Trump, the contours of a searing repudiation. In the view of many institutionalists of the right as well as the left, he is bulldozing values that America holds dear.
Yet the negativity is couched in words of moderation and caution. What effect does that have in Trump’s America?
These are sober, restrained players in a fracas produced, directed and dominated by an in-your-face president.
“The well-informed public understands what they’re saying and how deeply concerned they are,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor and historian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The rest of the public might not get it.”
Says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management specialist who has studied Trump’s rise in business and politics: “In a fight between crassness and discretion in the new millennium, crassness will win every time.”
Washington’s well-known partisan fever coexists with a more decorous tradition in some quarters — of raising eyebrows instead of raising hell, of saying things in so many words without actually using the words. People such as Mattis, former special counsel Robert Mueller and Chief Justice John Roberts are steeped in those ways.
When certain people let down their guard, history can happen. So it was when Joseph Nye Welch, a lawyer representing the buttoned-up U.S. Army, assailed Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a 1954 congressional hearing remembered for his putdown of the senator’s scorched-earth pursuit of men and women he deemed communist sympathizers in government and society:
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
In the McCarthy and Richard Nixon eras, “it took a long time for congressional leaders for the Republican Party to see the damage to their party and step in,” Jillson said, and no such tipping point has been reached in Republican ranks. If it comes, he said, “that’s when they’ll talk and then everybody will hear them.”
“Republicans will not do it while they think there are still gains to be made through the Trump presidency,” he said. But if the fear that was stirred by 2018 losses and Trump’s behavior since then “consolidates into wide-eyed terror,” that’s “when they cut their people loose,” loyalty fractures and more in the GOP abandon the president.
For now, censure comes in coded form from power players in the nonpartisan world — as well as frontally from a few Republican lawmakers as they exit their careers and from, predictably, Democrats.
“Mattis, Mueller and others have lived in a world of consequences which, combined with their natures, has made them discreet,” says Dezenhall, the crisis-management specialist. “They’re not about to blast Trump because they view it as dishonorable.” But they hint at what they think.
When The Associated Press asked the chief justice last fall to address Trump’s criticism of judges who had ruled against his wishes — like the “Obama judge” who had just rejected his migrant asylum policy — it did not really expect an answer. It got one.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” the Republican-nominated Roberts responded in a statement. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.” He added: “The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
His words were both startling and circumspect, no more provocative on the surface than a civics lesson, yet a rare engagement by the high court in the fray.
Roberts had never addressed Trump’s past personal criticisms, whether as president or pundit (“Congratulations to John Roberts for making Americans hate the Supreme Court because of his BS,” Trump tweeted in 2012). But when Trump rhetorically charged through the firewall of the independent judiciary, the chief justice subtly called him out.
Among the elites, those without robes also maintain stoicism through slings and arrows, to a point.
Trump-nominated Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell bites his lip in silence when the president, upset that interest rates aren’t lower, takes on a target that past presidents only jousted with obliquely. “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powel or Chairman Xi?” Trump demanded in a tweet misspelling the Fed chairman’s name and referring to China’s president.
Mueller’s mastery of restraint drove Trump’s opponents batty in hours of congressional testimony about his special counsel investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and its contacts with the Trump campaign. Democrats pressed him to say what they wanted to hear, but he talked the code.
“Problematic is an understatement,” is how the longtime Republican characterized his view of Trump’s 2016 encouragement of Russia to find missing emails of his political opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is,” Mueller said of the idea of a U.S. campaign embracing help from a foreign government. “It is not a witch hunt,” he said of a probe that Trump repeatedly attacked as just that. He was no more animated than the stone statues of the Capitol.
Through the two years of his investigation, Mueller never responded to any of Trump’s attacks, never updated the public on his work and certainly never offered a glimpse of any personal view of the president. Yet his final report had damning detail, wrapped in legalese, about Trump’s efforts to get Mueller fired, to get aides to lie on his behalf, to get an attorney general he perceived as a loyalist to take control of the investigation — all while stopping short of accusing Trump of a crime.
Mueller’s fellow Marine, Mattis, quit as defense secretary before Trump assigned him an insulting nickname, though the president came close in branding Mattis “sort of a Democrat.” Mattis resigned over differences with Trump on Syria and the fight over the Islamic State and is known to have objected to Trump’s disparagement of traditional allies.
Months later, Mattis is promoting his new book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” which is not a tell-all about Trump despite the title. And, for now, he’s speaking the code.
“He’s an unusual president, our president is,” he said blandly in an interview for “CBS Sunday Morning,” adding elliptically, “just the rabid nature of politics today, we’ve got to be careful.”
Then there was this exchange on “PBS NewsHour” this week when Mattis was asked whether he would say so if he thought Trump or any president wasn’t fit for office.
So he thinks Trump is fit to be president?
“No, I’m not saying that. I don’t make political assessments one way or the other. I come from the Defense Department.”
In interviews for an article in The Atlantic magazine, Mattis, a student of history, cited the French concept of “the duty of silence” to explain why he won’t say whether he thinks Trump is fit to be in charge.
“I may not like a commander in chief one fricking bit,” he said. But: “When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country.”
Yet it seems that the man with the Marine-flavored nickname Trump once loved — Mad Dog — will someday break his leash and growl.
“There is a period in which I owe my silence,” he told the magazine. “It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”