U.S. presidents, historically, have been very reliant on key advisers — and sometimes, they were even criticized by their supporters for it. President George W. Bush, for example, was criticized by some of his supporters for failing to question former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on foreign policy matters; some of President Barack Obama’s supporters complained that he was too reliant on former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner when it came to economic policy. But President Donald Trump has been a major exception, angrily refusing to listen to what key advisors have had to say. And when former National Security Advisor John Bolton left the Trump Administration earlier this month — either because he was fired or because he quit — it was only one of the many departures that underscored Trump’s inability to accept any type of criticism. From former Defense Secretary James Mattis to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to former Secretary of States Rex Tillerson, anyone who questions Trump is likely to either be fired or quit.
Trump clearly prefers sycophants and loyalists, not advisers who offer constructive criticism — and the more obedient they are, the more likely they are to remain in his good graces. Here are some of the president’s most obsequious sycophants.
1. Attorney General William Barr
As much of a right-wing ideologue as Sessions is, the former attorney general did show some integrity when he recused himself from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation — much to Trump’s chagrin. Trump, after the 2018 midterms, fired Sessions and replaced him with a loyalist: former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. And when Trump nominated William Barr for attorney general and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, some of the Democrats who voted for Barr hoped he would show some independence and be a more traditional conservative — after all, Barr had previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. But after Mueller delivered the final report for his Russia investigation, Barr made it abundantly clear that he would be a Trump loyalist through and through.
Barr painted the Mueller Report as a total vindication of Trump when in reality, Mueller offered a mountain of evidence that Trump went to great lengths to undermine the Russia investigation. In Barr, Trump has something he didn’t have in Sessions: an obedient loyalist.
2. Kellyanne Conway
The White House has been a revolving door in the Trump era, but one of the people Trump can count on to be one of his most loyal carnival barkers is key adviser Kellyanne “Alternative Facts” Conway. In 2016, when Conway was still a strategist for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’ presidential campaign, she was highly critical of Trump. But Conway quickly flip-flopped and became unwavering in her support for Trump after Cruz dropped out of the race and Trump received the GOP presidential nomination. Conway can be downright buffoonish when it comes to her defense of Trump — it was Conway who coined the Orwellian term “alternative facts” — and she can quickly become testy when anyone at right-wing Fox News offers even mild criticism of the president. But that’s why Trump likes having her around.
3. Rudy Giuliani
When former federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani was serving as mayor of New York City in the 1990s, he was often described as a Republican who could easily win over centrist Democrats: Giuliani was decisively reelected in 1997 in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Giuliani even sought the advice of former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, after his first mayoral victory in 1993 (Rendell went on to serve as governor of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Democratic National Committee). But these days, Giuliani is both a bitterly partisan Republican and a Trump loyalist. Serving as Trump’s personal attorney, Giuliani can be counted on to defend Trump as aggressively as possible whether the subject is the Mueller Report, immigration or health care. Giuliani has long since shattered any pretense of being a “moderate.”
4. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham
One of the people who obviously didn’t leave the Trump Administration on bad terms was former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an often abrasive defender of the president who was quick to join him in bashing the mainstream media. And after replacing Sanders in July, Stephanie Grisham (First Lady Melania Trump’s former press secretary) proved to be equally adversarial with the mainstream press. President Trump was recently criticized for claiming that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian and becoming furious when the National Weather Service responded that Alabama was not in danger, and Grisham responded by rising to Trump’s defense and attacking CNN. In Grisham, Trump has exactly what he wants in a White House press secretary: a confrontational attack dog who will stridently defend him even when he is at his most ridiculous.
5. Vice President Mike Pence
Trump has a very different relationship with Vice President Mike Pence than George W. Bush had with former Vice President Dick Cheney or Barack Obama had with former Vice President Joe Biden. While Bush and Obama welcomed constructive criticism and feedback from their vice presidents, Trump doesn’t turn to Pence for policy debates: he expects Pence to remain a loyal and unquestioning member of Team Trump. There has been speculation of Trump having a running mate other than Pence in 2020, but Trump has responded that Pence is “100%” his 2020 running mate. And strategically, picking someone else would be a terrible move for Trump’s reelection campaign because Pence is quite popular among far-right white evangelicals and extreme Christian fundamentalists — who are a crucial part of his base. In Pence, Trump has a vice president who is both a loyalist and a religious extremist, which makes him perfect for Team Trump.