This column is written for every Republican staffer on Capitol Hill who — even now — is debating whether to join the Trump administration. It is also directed at those who have already followed their dreams of striding along the corridors of power and entered the White House.
My advice to you sounds like the dialogue in a disaster movie: “Don’t do it. Run. Get out now. It’s the only escape.”
I am not talking about major administration officials like the supposedly depressed and angry Gary Cohn, who heads the National Economic Council. Nor am I referring to Donald Trump’s willing White House enablers like Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks, the newly promoted 28-year-old communications director.
They have made their Faustian bargains and they will never escape their close association with a president who makes Warren Harding look like a statesman and Richard Nixon resemble a pillar of moral rectitude.
Instead, my words of warning are directed at those now-and-future Trump staffers who naively believe that they can stay hidden in plain sight. By doing their jobs diligently, by never going on television, by trying to avoid controversy, they labor under the illusion that they can escape the taint of Trump.
That might have been a defensible position six months ago when — if you wished really hard — you might have convinced yourself that any day now, Trump would start behaving like a normal president. But now even the most credulous must accept the reality that 71-year-old men do not change their natures in the Oval Office and that no one (certainly not new Chief of Staff John Kelly) can tame Trump.
You could see this coming
The Trump response to Charlottesville was, in a sense, inevitable.
In February 2016, Trump initially refused to repudiate the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists in a CNN interview which foreshadowed his mealy-mouthed words this week: “You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. … You may have some groups in there that are totally fine.”
It doesn’t matter why Trump is obsessed with the notion that some white supremacists “are totally fine.” It could be a deliberate political signal to racist voters. Or it could be a narcissist’s conviction that anyone who praises him is automatically a good person underneath that white sheet.
What counts is the result — Trump is the first president to implicitly condone hatemongers ranging from the Klan to neo-Nazis. And the stench from that Trumpian position touches every political appointee working in his administration.
There is the argument that the nation needs competent people beavering away at their jobs, especially when you have a Nixon or a Trump in the Oval Office. But, in truth, the only indispensable people in this administration are the handful of generals (Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis) who hopefully can deter Trump from using nuclear weapons.
It is an illusion to believe that anyone in the White House working on tax reform, infrastructure or the budget is performing essential work. As the health care debacle proves, Trump is an obstacle to passing legislation rather than a driving force. Any tax bill that passes Congress will be written on Capitol Hill — and not by political appointees at the Treasury and the White House.
Where’s the dignity?
There is also the appeal of working in the White House in pure careerist terms. As a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter, I recall the heady sense of privilege that comes with walking into the White House complex wearing a hard pass with your photograph on it. Even now, nearly 40 years later, that period of my life shimmers in memory.
Carter, sadly, was not a successful president, even though I believe that his achievements such as championing human rights and energy conservation are underappreciated. But never in my time in the Carter administration did I worry for one instant that I was condoning immoral or unethical behavior.
In contrast, it is a rare day when Trump does not make those working in the White House (or those contemplating it) cringe. The from-Russia-with-love scandal, the nonstop lying, the disdain for conflict-of-interest rules and the guttersnipe tweets all add up to a president determined to remove honor and dignity from the White House.
Those who have nurtured the dream of parlaying a year or two in the White House into a private sector career should brace themselves for a rude shock. If CEOs cannot abide serving on a Trump advisory committee, they are not going to cheer when they see the words Trump White House on a resume.
For those already working in the Trump White House, there is the understandable fear that they will seem flighty and irresponsible if they leave after, say, six months. But a one-word answer will convincingly explain their abrupt departure: “Charlottesville.”
In contrast, it is hard to come up with any answer to justify staying after Charlottesville.
There is a final reason that should deter any restless Capitol Hill staffer from migrating downtown — Congress is likely to be the center of the action for the rest of Trump’s time in office.
Sure, Trump can command the headlines and the TV cameras with his latest outrage. But more than at any time since Watergate, the center of actual governance (instead of bluster) will be in the halls of Congress.
So stay put — and preserve your integrity. It will make all the difference both tomorrow and when you’re summing up your career in the decades to come. Or as Nancy Reagan put it in another context, “Just say no.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.