WASHINGTON — Some seek their distance, delicately taking issue with President Donald Trump’s most controversial remarks. Others decide it’s safer to stand by him. Most would rather say nothing at all.
Under intense pressure, members of Trump’s Cabinet are struggling to walk the line between rebuking their notoriously thin-skinned boss and defending comments that struck even many loyal Republicans as offensive. Though the friction has been building for months, Trump’s polarizing response to white nationalism in Charlottesville was a catalyst, with fallout that has continued to dog his administration more than two weeks later.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the latest administration member forced to take a position on Trump’s handling of Charlottesville, in which he described people at a neo-Nazi rally as “very fine people.” The unenviable list also includes Trump’s treasury secretary, chief of the National Economic Council and defense secretary.
“They’re getting pressure from friends, colleagues, Capitol Hill, journalists,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political strategist. “I think we’re at a point where Republicans are feeling more freedom and perhaps responsibility to speak out when Trump crosses the line. But there’s no handbook for this.”
Tillerson, questioned in a TV interview, tried to avoid a direct response. He pivoted and emphasized the values of equality that he said he’s been pushing at the State Department.
But asked directly whether Trump represented those values, Tillerson demurred.
“The president speaks for himself, Chris,” he told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. “I’ve spoken. I’ve made my own comments as to our values, as well, in a speech I gave.”
Tillerson’s non-answer spread virally on social media, coming just as a growing number of Republicans have deemed the Charlottesville controversy the last straw. By the next morning, there were dramatic reports suggesting Tillerson’s job was on the line — some speculating he was on thin ice with Trump, others suggesting Tillerson was ready to quit.
But Tillerson had actually been trying to do the opposite: avoid causing a stir one way or another, according to individuals familiar with his preparations for the interview. After all, the adage that the president’s comments or tweets “speak for themselves” has been regularly deployed across Trump’s administration, including from the White House press secretary, as a standard dodge when faced with comments that can’t be easily defended.
“The secretary hasn’t been looking to re-litigate anything that’s been going on,” said R.C. Hammond, a senior Tillerson adviser.
And despite murmurings from Trump associates that the president was irked by the exchange, the White House defended Tillerson, calling him “a trusted and highly valued member” of Trump’s team.
“Rumors to the contrary are absolutely false,” said Michael Anton, the White House National Security Council spokesman. “We look forward to the secretary continuing to make vital contributions to the Trump administration and to American foreign policy long into the future.”
Within Trump’s team, other top officials have navigated the delicate situation differently, and with varying outcomes.
Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser and leader of his tax reform effort, sharply criticized the administration’s response to the racial violence in Charlottesville, saying in a Financial Times interview that they “can and must do better.”
Yet the former Goldman Sachs executive had voiced his discomfort to Trump beforehand and made clear he felt compelled to say so publicly, sparing the White House any surprise. Still, the public rebuke from a top aide frustrated Trump, said a person close to the White House, who, along others interviewed on the subject, demanded anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss private conversations. Cohn, who is Jewish, also considered stepping down.
And Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was captured on video, apparently in Jordan, telling U.S. troops they were a “great example” for a country he said has “got some problems.”
“You know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military,” Mattis said in apparently unscripted remarks. Though it was unclear whether Mattis was directly referencing Charlottesville, the posting of the video on social media in the aftermath of Trump’s comments ensured it was widely viewed through that prism.
In contrast, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin chose an approach that emphasized fealty to Trump.
Implored to speak out by his former Yale classmates, Mnuchin issued an extraordinary statement saying Trump “in no way, shape or form believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.” He added that he was proud to serve.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson likewise came to Trump’s staunch defense, arguing the president had “overtly disavowed any relationship with white supremacists.” In a series of Facebook posts, Carson, who is black, echoed Trump’s comments that there is hatred and bigotry “on all sides” and that it was “sad” that pundits were arguing about whether Trump had gone far enough.
Despite demanding loyalty from top aides, so far it’s not clear Trump is looking to make any immediate changes to his staff. The chaotic administration has seen significant turnover recently, with the departures of his first press secretary, chief of staff and chief strategist.