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Ever since President Donald Trump issued an equivocating response to the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, over a dozen of the country’s most prominent Republicans have denounced the president’s remarks.
“[The president] has not demonstrated that he understands what has made this nation great,” Sen. Bob Corker, an influential Tennessee Republican, said Thursday, warning that without “radical changes” in the White House, the nation could end up in “great peril.”
But while many administration officials have privately voiced their discomfort with his comments – particularly those at a free-wheeling press conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday – none have aired their grievances publicly or resigned their posts.
Some Republican strategists are surprised the at the lack of response from top White House officials to what they consider the most flagrant violation of American values that Trump has displayed so far in his presidency.
“I think Tuesday was the worst day of Trump’s presidency,” Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider. “I was a little bit surprised there weren’t resignations Wednesday morning, given how ridiculous that press conference was.”
But Mackowiak says resigning from the White House is a personally and professionally difficult decision to make for a host of reasons, some of which are specific to Trump’s volatile administration.
“It’s very easy for elites to self-righteously demand resignations,” Mackowiak said. “To some extent, I think a lot of them feel like they can counterbalance some of the president’s worst instincts and some of the bad advice he gets from certain individuals on the team.”
Indeed, several top White House staffers see themselves as damage control.
“A lot of it is just making sure that things that are not fully baked or things that are not constructive don’t end up happening,” a senior White House aide told Politico this week.
And in most cases, leaving the White House isn’t professionally strategic – the risk far outweighs the reward for resigning “in a blaze of glory.”
“The reward is you’re celebrated for two days and then you’re forgotten about,” Mackowiak said. “It’s always better to say that you left on good terms.”
The calculation is “does staying hurt me more than leaving?” he added.
Worse than forgotten, some Trump aides likely fear retribution from the president’s loyalists should they resign on principle.
“You have to assume that the supporters of the president would make it at least their short-term mission in life to make sure anything and everything that could be said bad about you is said bad about you, and make you radioactive enough to make it hard to find another job,” Reed Galen, a GOP consultant and deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told Business Insider.
Not to mention that a job in the White House is the ultimate political prize.
But Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist and author of the book “GOP GPS,” says that, for most, remaining in the White House post-Charlottesville is unconscionable. While he commends those who are attempting to moderate the president’s positions, he had sharp words for White House aides who are staying on for their own personal gain.
“Those who are very uncomfortable with it and very angry but are staying because they might get something in the future that personally benefits them, they have revealed themselves to be people whose morals need adjustment,” Siegfried said.
He added that he isn’t surprised at the lack of resignations, given the president’s track record. While this week may be a low point in Trump’s presidency, it certainly has competition – from the Access Hollywood tape to Trump’s attacks on a Gold Star family.
“There have been plenty of actions he’s taken over the course of his presidency and his campaign that have drawn condemnation from people of conscience,” Siegfried said. “His aides stuck by him then and they’re sticking by him now.”
Mackowiak agreed with that assessment to a certain extent, noting that staffers were less surprised at Trump’s show of sympathy for white supremacists and more “shocked at how self-destructive he was able to be.”
Galen and Mackowiak said that many in the administration are still optimistic that they can make progress on significant conservative policy issues, including tax reform and immigration, and believe the departure of chief strategist Steve Bannon and the addition of chief of staff John Kelly will lead the administration in a more productive direction.
“My guess is these staffers are separating a crisis communications situation from policy,” Mackowiak said, “And they’re trying to look at how much good can we do, what can we really accomplish … I think there is some hope internally that things are getting better, even in spite of this.”
But none know where the line falls between what Trump’s aides will and won’t tolerate.
“I’m sure it exists, but I don’t know where it is yet,” Galen said. “You’d think we were close.”