WASHINGTON — Sitting in the Oval Office in the infancy of his presidency in 2017, Donald Trump found himself surrounded by new aides who had worked for other prominent Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, his most bitter rival from the previous year’s primaries.
The “America First” president evidently worried that they wouldn’t now put the American president first.
Trump went around the room, inquisition-style, asking each aide to declare allegiance, according to a person who was present.
“He was quizzing people in the Oval if they were loyal to him or previous bosses,” the source recalled seven years later.
But no matter how much emphasis Trump put on loyalty in his first term, he found himself disappointed and frustrated when people he had hired chose other considerations over his instructions — their own reputations, future ambitions and even the Constitution.
During one meeting three years into his term, the president sat with his third defense secretary, Mark Esper, a top aide who had been tasked with installing loyalists in the administration and other senior advisers. The aides wondered aloud how they had kept missing the mark and choosing people who weren’t loyal enough.?
“Trump said, ‘We can’t let that happen again,’” according to a source familiar with the conversation.?
From Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ allowing for the appointment of the Russia probe special counsel Robert Mueller to Attorney General William Barr’s refusing to declare the 2020 election invalid and Vice President Mike Pence’s declining to reject electors, Trump felt he had been betrayed by the very officials who owed him the most.
Esper, too, would later be unceremoniously cast out after being at odds with Trump on a number of issues.?
Now, as he contemplates a second stint in the Oval Office, his fixation on fealty appears to be growing, and some people who have spent time close to the former president say they believe it will be the singular criterion for potential appointees if voters give him what he wants.
Trump has repeatedly brought up the issue of loyalty in his public remarks, as well. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, he emphasized that point at a rally. He went after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, his competitors who were once his allies. And as a contrast, he stood with his onetime rival Doug Burgum as the governor of North Dakota offered him an endorsement.?
“There’s something about the lack of loyalty in politics,” Trump said.?
Trump’s success in a second term will hinge on bringing in people committed to his agenda, top appointees from his first term say. Trump and his allies have big plans for a second term — and still-fresh memories of a drawn-out four-year battle against a hostile administrative state. But without committed allies in key roles, ambitions to gut the federal bureaucracy, overhaul rulemaking and slash budgets could wither and die.
“They have to be resolute with their commitment to the president’s vision,” a top Trump official said of those who could find themselves tapped for plum roles. “You weren’t elected; you’re a Cabinet person as part of the executive branch, and your job is to understand and execute.”?
“The headwinds will be significant,” he added.?
Finding the 'shock troops'
Allies of Trump, who is term-limited if re-elected, are aware of the need for a slate of officials willing to execute his vision and prepared to quickly kick into gear.?
“You have four years. You have three or four major things you can accomplish — major things — and you have to have the full support of a team that’s loyal,” an outside adviser to Trump said. “I think the president is going to have that.”?
A former White House official, speaking about the plans to send in loyalists who are better prepared to execute Trump’s agenda, said: “We’re not going to sit around and wait for the Senate, which is very, very divided and not even in the hands of conservatives, to get things done. Things will be happening, even before Inauguration Day.”?
Already, conservatives are laying the groundwork for “shock troops” to take administration posts in a second Trump term, with one group, the Association of Republican Presidential Appointees, hosting a two-day “presidential appointee boot camp” Feb. 19 and 20 in the Washington suburbs.
The boot camp promises to give would-be appointees insight into “the operating context in which appointees work to implement the president’s agenda” and “tactics appointees can use to help the president gain control over the levers of power and thwart a hostile bureaucracy.”
And yet, Trump’s campaign team has tried to put a lid on a constellation of outside groups that are dreaming up wish lists of appointees and an agenda for a prospective next term.?
“The efforts by various non-profit groups are certainly appreciated and can be enormously helpful,” Trump campaign senior advisers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita said in a statement in November. “However, none of these groups or individuals speak for President Trump or his campaign. We will have an official transition effort to be announced at a later date.”?
Wiles and LaCivita declined requests to comment for this article.
Refusing to take any chances in the vetting process, allies are promising to help “weed out those that would employ subterfuge” in a bid to thwart Trump from inside, the former official said.?
“This is a sharp-elbowed sport, and we know that there will be people that want to undermine the president,” the person added.?
A political strategist with ties to a Republican who has been floated in the media as a potential running mate for Trump said,?“If you’re Trump, you value loyalty above all else, particularly because he sees Mike Pence as having made a fatal sin.”
It’s exactly that thinking that has given rise to concerns about who might be prepared to staff a future Trump administration, with those at odds with him fearing a worst-case scenario that imperils the sanctity of the republic.???
“The starting point for a second Trump term will be the last year of his first term. … Loyalty will be the attribute Trump will be seeking above all else,” said Esper, whose tenure as defense secretary was cut short as Trump struggled to come to terms with the 2020 election results. “He won’t pick people like Jim Mattis or me who will push back on him. So the question becomes: What harm might occur over four years?”
'It reminds me of "Game of Thrones"'
As Trump’s lead in the Republican primary campaign becomes more solid, ritual demonstrations of loyalty, particularly from Republicans with stronger ties to a political establishment that was once foreign to him, show his tightening grip.?
After Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — who challenged Trump for the Republican nomination before he dropped out in November — said he would support Trump over Haley, Trump gave little pause before he dug the knife in as the two appeared together in New Hampshire last month.?
“You must really hate her,” Trump said of Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, who appointed Scott to his seat in the Senate.
Scott could only manage to utter words that are music to Trump’s ears: “I just love you,” Scott said.
Yet, it’s not just Trump demanding fealty as he mounts his comeback campaign. Voters, too, feel a sense of allegiance, with Republicans today less likely than they were two years ago to believe Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, according to a recent University of Maryland-Washington Post poll.?
Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, a onetime Trump critic, defended those concerns in an interview with ABC News this month, echoing other allies for whom Trump’s election loss in 2020 still looms over his comeback campaign.?
Vance, who has been floated as a possible vice presidential pick, said the results of the 2020 presidential race should have been handled differently for a “legitimate” outcome, with Congress considering multiple slates of electors.
It isn’t only potential running mates or political appointees who are taking stock of the price of disloyalty; so are operatives at every juncture of the Republican machine.?
“It reminds me of ‘Game of Thrones,’” a former adviser said. “They want you to bend the knee. And if you don’t bend the knee, they take your property. They take your title. They take your reputation, and they throw you into the gulag.”
The demand has settled like a fog over the Republican Party, seeping into its crevices and stifling dissent, an outcome that gives credence to Trump’s fiercest critics, this person argued.
“What I fear is this idea of loyalty means ‘stop questioning,’” the former adviser said. “There will be consequences if you do, and that’s why I think there’s some credence to the idea that he’s a so-called authoritarian. I don’t think he is authoritarian, but he’s opening himself up to this criticism.”?
This person added, “His idea of loyalty is one-way.”?
Others said that while Trump is susceptible to displays of fealty, he is looking to nab top talent.?
“He wants the ‘best available,’” another former White House official said. “Loyalty is important to him, but I don’t know that it’s as much of a litmus test as that.”
History shows that even a promise of excommunication from Trump can run its course. Those who have climbed back in from the cold include Steve Bannon, Trump’s ousted former chief strategist, and conservative media figure Tucker Carlson, who endorsed Trump in November but earlier wrote that he hated him “passionately” in a text message revealed in a lawsuit.?
“There are plenty of people that he once viewed as, in his mind, disloyal, who he then relishes bringing back on board,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff. “Trump loves nothing more than a public reconciliation.”?