Dana Milbank: Common refrain of those leaving White House: Don’t blame me

Washington • One by one they leap — or are pushed — from the foundering USS Trump, each offering a variation of the same plea: Don’t blame me.

Comes now retired Gen. John Kelly, the second of President Trump's chiefs of staff to be discarded. Days before departing, he paused for a two-hour telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. It was an extended exercise in self-absolution.

Don't blame him for Trump's border-wall obsession. "To be honest, it's not a wall," Kelly disclosed, insisting "we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration." (A day after the interview was published, Trump tweeted: "An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED.")

Don't blame Kelly for Trump's fabricated "crisis" at the southern border. "If you want to stop illegal immigration, stop U.S. demand for drugs and expand economic opportunity" in Central America, Kelly proposed.

Don't blame him for Trump's claims that Hispanic immigrants spread violence and drugs. "Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people," Kelly said.

And don't blame him for the travel ban or the family separation policies, either. Rather, he, argued, he should be judged for what Trump didn't do: withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan (which he's doing now), pull troops out of South Korea or withdraw from NATO (which remain uncertain).

Right. And if we judge success by things that didn't happen, we should also credit Kelly for avoiding a zombie apocalypse.

Kelly served his country honorably for decades. But there's nothing courageous in announcing, on the way out the door, that he didn't agree with many awful things Trump did on his watch. There was, once, a good argument that qualified people, by taking administration jobs, could temper Trump's worst instincts. But it turned out Trump was not to be tempered. Those who disagreed with the madness had an obligation to resign, or at least to speak out — not to wash their hands of responsibility after the fact.

Don't blame Rex Tillerson. The ousted secretary of state recently told Bob Schieffer of CBS News he reined in Trump by saying "you can't do it that way. It violates the law. It violates a treaty."

Don't blame Jim Mattis. The former defense secretary waited until resigning to publicly state his disagreements with Trump over NATO, "malign actors" such as Russia and "treating allies with respect."

Don't blame Reince Priebus. Trump's first chief of staff spoke up about Trump's chaos after he was ousted, telling author Chris Whipple: "Take everything you've heard and multiply it by 50."

Don't blame Nikki Haley. Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, in a parting shot, said "our opponents are not evil. They're just our opponents."

Don't blame Gary Cohn. The former economic adviser denounced Trump's trade war and defended the Federal Reserve's interest-rate policy against Trump's criticism ("I don't think he should make comments on any independent agency").

Also, don't blame Omarosa Manigault Newman (she knew Trump was a racist but took a job in his White House anyway) or Michael Cohen (at his sentencing, the president's former personal lawyer said his "blind loyalty" to Trump led him to "cover up his dirty deeds") or Steve Bannon (after he departed the White House, the former top strategist suggested Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort had engaged in "treasonous" and "unpatriotic" behavior).

The self-absolution extends into the diaspora of Trump apologists. Departing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., gave a farewell speech denouncing the use of social media to "play on anger" and "on people's fears." Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, in defeat, denounced Trump for operating with "no real relationships, just convenient transactions."

Better late than never? Perhaps. Those taking parting shots are certainly more honorable than those who, with non-disparagement agreements, get paid to defend Trump on the airwaves. The post-employment critics also compare favorably with Mick Mulvaney, who called Trump a "terrible human being" before becoming Trump's budget director and now acting chief of staff.

But the after-the-fact criticism seems self-serving — a way for Trump enablers to rebuild their reputations and find new jobs. Tucker Carlson, an unstinting Trump booster, used the anonymity of a German-language weekly to put on the record that he questions Trump's competence, knowledge, self-aggrandizement and personnel choices.

Even Carlson, though, is braver than the anonymous Trump official who wrote The New York Times op-ed about efforts to sabotage Trump from within. How long before the author emerges to claim credit — and perhaps a book contract? Proposed title: Don't blame me.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics.