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There are few traits Donald Trump claims to value the way he values loyalty. In a remarkable passage in The Art of the Deal, Trump praises his mentor Roy Cohn for placing loyalty above all else — even integrity.
He was a truly loyal guy — it was a matter of honor with him — and because he was also very smart, he was a great guy to have on your side. You could count on him to go to bat for you, even if he privately disagreed with your view, and even if defending you wasn't necessarily the best thing for him. He was never two-faced.
Just compare that with all the hundreds of "respectable" guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty. They only care about what's best for them and don't think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite. Roy was the kind of guy who'd be there at your hospital bed long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.
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For Trump, though, loyalty is a one-way street. He turns out to be precisely one of those guys who will stab a friend in the back as soon as the friend becomes a problem. And the problem for Trump, and for the rest of us, is that the whole country is watching him do it.
Trump's treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has sent shockwaves through his Cabinet. Many are rumored to be thinking of quitting in the aftermath — better to leave before Trump has turned you into a national joke than after. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is rumored to be particularly disgusted and close to resigning. And anyone currently serving Trump is likely taking a page from ex-FBI Director James Comey's book and keeping copious notes on their experiences — the better to fight back in a memoir or with leaks if they need to get their side of the story out, or salvage their reputation after being attacked by Trump.
But for the country, the penalty will be felt not in those serving Trump now, but in those who will — or, more to the point, won't — serve Trump next. Trump promised to hire "the best people" but he has created a culture that will only attract the worst.
Attorney General Sessions was one of Trump's earliest, staunchest supporters. On the night Trump won the election, he singled out Sessions for special praise. He thanked Sessions for being "the first man, first senator, first major, major politician" to endorse him, going on to say Sessions was "highly respected in Washington because he's as smart as you get."
Today, Trump is singing a different tune. Furious at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe, Trump has been attacking Sessions in public in the hopes that he can humiliate his attorney general into resigning and replace him with an AG who can more effectively shield Trump and his family from the rule of law.
Trump's public campaign against his own attorney general is a bizarre spectacle. But it has come alongside something even more pathologically strange: Trump publicly denying Sessions had ever been loyal to him. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said:
When they say he endorsed me, I went to Alabama. I had 40,000 people. He was a senator from Alabama. I won the state by a lot, massive numbers. A lot of the states I won by massive numbers. But he was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, 'What do I have to lose?' And he endorsed me. So it's not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.
If you were wondering how Trump justifies abandoning his most loyal allies, there it is: He persuades himself they were never loyal to him in the first place.
If Sessions were an isolated case, Trump's behavior could perhaps be dismissed as part of his fear of Robert Mueller's investigation. But the public humiliation of ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus shows how that Trump's dismissal and destruction of even his most stolid and important supporters is a pattern, not an aberration.
During the campaign, Priebus was among Trump's most consequential allies. As head of the Republican National Committee, Priebus defied many in his party and refused to tilt the primaries against Trump. No matter what Trump said, or what Trump did, Priebus kept the RNC in his corner, and, once Trump had won the nomination, turned it into the campaign machinery Trump had never bothered to build.
Trump knew how important Priebus and the RNC had been to his success. "Reince is really a star," he said in his victory speech. "And he is the hardest-working guy." Then, in in an unusual move, he interrupted his speech to turn the mic over to Priebus. "Say a few words," he asked.
Priebus, always the good soldier, said exactly what Trump wanted to hear: "Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States, Donald Trump."
"Amazing guy," Trump replied. "Our partnership with the RNC was so important to the success and what we've done."
For all this, Trump named Priebus his chief of staff. Priebus was underqualified for the position — he had never served in a White House or even in Congress — but it was, from the outset, an impossible job: Trump couldn't be controlled, and he didn't give Priebus the power to control the other power centers in the administration, either. As Trump's approval ratings tanked and his agenda stalled and his aides went to war with each other, he came to blame Priebus for his troubles.
But rather than simply firing Priebus, Trump spoke openly and often of his contempt for his chief of staff, and he let others in his White House do the same. The result was an agonizing, slow, and very public humiliation of Trump's former "star." As far back as February, Trump's friends were speaking publicly of the president's disappointment in his chief of staff, and Washington was filled with leaks that Priebus's days were numbered.
All this culminated over the last week when Anthony Scaramucci, Trump's new communications director, placed an angry call to the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza in which he called Priebus "a fucking paranoid schizophrenic," and said, "Reince Priebus—if you want to leak something—he'll be asked to resign very shortly."
Prior to Trump, it would be unimaginable that a communications director for a White House could give an interview like that without being fired the next day. But Trump quickly let it be known that he appreciated Scaramucci's passion, and found it contemptible that Priebus didn't fight back publicly. A few days later, Trump fired Priebus, just as Scaramucci said he would, and left him on an airport tarmac.
When Trump took office, his administration was a mix of loyalists who would never have gotten a major administration job outside of a Trump White House — Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions — and genuinely talented public servants who joined hoping to steer this administration onto a better course, and who in turn hoped Trump would prove himself an unexpectedly capable manager who could run, or let someone else run, a steady, efficient White House.
Those hopes are now dashed. Worse, it's become clear that to serve Trump is to risk permanently damaging your reputation — you will be asked to do things you shouldn't do, and to say things you know you shouldn't say, and even if you follow orders loyally, you might still end up on the wrong side of the president's tweets.
Imagine you're a governor, or a head of industry, who is asked to serve in this administration. After watching Trump's most committed aides be humiliated, abandoned, and destroyed, who would dare join this administration in the future? If even slavish loyalty isn't protection from Trump's ire, what is?
The future of the Trump administration now is people like Scaramucci — ambitious hangers-on who would not be considered for top jobs in a more capable administration, and so are willing to risk national humiliation to attain the political power and prestige that only Trump, with all his drawbacks, can or would give them.
Perhaps this is the way Trump wants it: One way to ensure maximal loyalty from your staff is to hire people who exist purely on your patronage; that's how you find the aides who will bend the rules to protect you from Mueller, or who will toss aside ethics and honesty to say whatever you tell them to say. But these are not the people the country needs in a White House this corrupt, this incompetent, and this adrift.
Commentary by Ezra Klein, the Editor-in-Chief of Vox. Follow him on Twitter @ezraklein.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.