Trump’s ‘extraordinary’ number of critics who have worked for him

A minimum of 16 Trump administration veterans have sharply criticized the ex-president, with terms such as “threat to democracy,” “erratic,” “delusional” and “narcissistic.”


Sarah Matthews was working in the White House on Jan. 6, 2021 when a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. She saw how Trump’s staff tried to get him to condemn the violence for hours without success.

“In my eyes, it was a complete dereliction of duty that he did not uphold his oath of office,” Matthews told USA TODAY. “I lost all faith in him that day,”

Matthews resigned from her job as deputy press secretary in the wake of Jan. 6. She views Trump as a threat to democracy who tried to steal the 2020 election and would do it again.

Matthews is part of a large group of former Trump administration officials who have been sharply disapproving of the former president as he seeks to return to the Oval Office. Many who are questioning his fitness for the presidency held high-level positions in the White House, including former Vice President Mike Pence and multiple cabinet members.

The Trump critics from within his own administration often point to a few key concerns: the threat they believe he poses to democracy, his handling of national security issues and his character.

The sheer number of Trump officials − a minimum of 16 − speaking out against their former boss, and the severity of their criticism, is highly unusual. It has no historical precedent in the last century, according to three presidential historians and a political scientist interviewed by USA TODAY.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this, certainly not in the last 100 years,” said Lindsay Chervinsky, a senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. 

Mike Pence, Mark Esper, John Bolton national security officials

Some former Trump administration officials are actively opposing his reelection. Others have been more circumspect while still offering damning assessments of his performance and character.

Pence was an enthusiastic proponent − critics would say “lapdog” − of Trump’s until the former president pressured him to overturn Biden’s victory, culminating in Trump supporters chanting “hang Mike Pence” as they overran the Capitol on Jan. 6. Pence ran against Trump in the 2024 Republican primary and now says he won’t endorse him in the general election because of “profound differences,” including on Pence’s “constitutional duties.”

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, also challenged him in the primary and has withheld her endorsement so far after dropping out.

“Someone who continually disrespects the sacrifices of military families has no business being commander in chief,” Haley said about Trump, after the ex-president mocked Haley’s husband, who is overseas on a military deployment.

Matthews, former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and former National Security Advisor John Bolton all told USA TODAY they won’t vote for Trump. Other key Trump administration figures who have offered strong criticism of the former president include Attorney General Bill Barr, chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“To see this many people coming out of an administration they worked for saying ‘danger, don’t let that guy anywhere near the White House again, it will put our democracy in peril,’ it’s a stunning thing,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Bolton, a stalwart of Republican administrations for decades, said the long list of Trump critics from within the White House shows that questions about him go well beyond simple policy disagreements.

“The stunning thing about the number of senior Trump administration officials who’ve campaigned against him I think proves that it really is Trump’s flawed character, lack of knowledge, lack of philosophy, lack of fitness that has them concerned,” Bolton said.

Bolton said it’s normal for administration members to disagree with their boss, but they often remain loyal because “they still think that the person’s heart is in the right place and he’s competent to do the job,” whereas Bolton’s experience with Trump led him to believe that the former president is incompetent and more concerned with his own political interests than national security. Bolton has said he will write-in former Vice-President Dick Cheney in 2024, as he did in 2020.

Linda McMahon, Wilbur Ross and others remain supportive

Trump has plenty of former administration officials who are still loyal to him. Some are eager to see him reelected and are active in his 2024 campaign, such as former Trump Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and former Trump Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon. Trump’s campaign dismisses the dissidents as outliers seeking publicity.

“There were dozens of Cabinet Members, hundreds of White House employees, and thousands of political appointees who proudly served in the Trump Administration and continue to strongly support President Trump,” Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement to USA TODAY. “The media loves to obsess over the few sell-outs who openly criticize him to boost their own egos or get more appearances on cable television.”

‘Threat to democracy’

Matthews was just 25 when she joined the Trump White House and seemed to have a long career in Republican politics ahead of her.

As the 2020 campaign played out, she grew uncomfortable about “Trump’s lies about the election” Trump falsely asserted there was massive voter fraud, claims that were rejected in dozens of court cases — but wanted to stick it out until the end of the administration.

Then Jan. 6 arrived.

“I witnessed staff go to President Trump to try to get him to condemn the violence,” Matthews said. “For hours, Trump refused to do anything. He didn’t want to stop it.”

Matthews testified about what she saw to the U.S. House committee investigating Jan. 6, and since then she been raising the alarm about another Trump term. She believes Trump’s actions amounted to an attempted “coup” and he would do it again.

“We saw he didn’t go along with the peaceful transfer of power the first time, what makes you think he would go along with it if he were elected to a second term and he would be willing to leave office?” she said.

Esper, the former defense secretary, worries too about Trump’s impact on America’s democratic system. In his 2022 memoir “A Sacred Oath,” Esper calls Trump’s decision to skip Biden’s swearing-in “a final act of petulance” that “tarnished our democracy.”

“He’s a threat to democracy as we know it,” Esper told USA TODAY.

Norms such as conceding electoral defeat and attending a successor’s inauguration “really hold the country together,” Esper said.

Esper also writes about his alarm surrounding former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s actions after the election, noting Flynn — who met with Trump in the Oval Office on Dec. 18, 2020went on television that same week and suggested that Trump could declare martial law, seize voting machines and use “military capabilities” to “basically rerun an election in each of those states.”

Trump fired Esper shortly after the election amid speculation that Trump might try to use the military to hold onto power.

Character concerns

Esper is scathing in his book about Trump’s character, efforts to politicize the military and decision-making on national security issues.

He writes that Trump is “unprincipled,” “petty,” “dangerous,” and prone to “outright fabrications.”

Denunciation of Trump’s character and approach to governing come up repeatedly from the former administration officials who have criticized him:

* Former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly told CNN that Trump has “nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution and our rule of law.”

*Former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr told CNN in an interview that Trump has a “penchant, for engaging in… reckless acts” and said “I don’t think he should be near the Oval Office,” in discussing his opposition to Trump during the primary, while still leaving the door open to voting for him in the general election.

*Cassidy Hutchinson, who served as assistant to former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, told CNN that “Donald Trump is the most grave threat that we will face to our democracy in our lifetime, and potentially in American history.”

*Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis released a statement condemning Jan. 6, when he accused the former president of using his position to “destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens.”

*Former Trump National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster in a CNN interview said the former president incited Jan. 6 through ”sustained disinformation… spreading these unfounded conspiracy theories” and accused him of “anti-leadership” and “undermining rule of law.”

*Former Trump White House Communications Director Stephanie Grisham, who resigned after Jan. 6, told ABC in 2021 Trump isn’t “fit for the job,” adding: “I think that he is erratic. I think that he can be delusional. I think that he is a narcissist and cares about himself first and foremost.  And I do not want him to be our president again.”

*Former Trump White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah Griffin told the Washington Post Trump “is a threat to democracy, and I will never support him.”

*Former Trump White House Special Counsel Ty Cobb told the Washington Post Trump’s “unrestrained contempt for the rule of law and his related crimes, his conduct and mere existence have hastened the demise of democracy and of the nation.”

Trump’s loyalists

Richard Grenell, who served as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence and has remained close with him, said criticisms of Trump’s character “don’t have any merit.”

“I know president Trump,” Grenell said. “He’s extremely kind and he’s a negotiator, he negotiates to try and make the situation better and in Washington D.C. a lot of people don’t want a negotiator, they want somebody who sticks to their partisan guns and fights.”

Grenell called the critics who have emerged from Trump’s administration “creatures of Washington D.C.”

“Washington D.C. has a problem from both sides of the aisle where people live, work, worship, play and grow their families all in Washington D.C.,” Grenell said. “It is difficult to think that the people who benefit from Washington D.C. are ever going to try to reform it.”

Among the other former Trump administration officials backing his campaign are former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Ross, all of whom endorsed his 2024 bid.

Ross and McMahon were among the co-chairs of a fundraiser this month for Trump in Palm Beach.

‘Unprecedented’ concern from those who worked most closely with the president

Tell-all memoirs from White House veterans have become more common in recent years, but such criticism is normally much milder than what has emerged from the Trump White House and limited to a handful of people said William Howell, a University of Chicago political scientist who has written several books about the presidency.

“Here you have a chorus of voices, all of whom are singing from the same hymnal, which is about Trump being ill-suited to serve as president and representing a distinct threat to democracy,” Howell said. “I can’t think of a corollary, certainly in modern American history.”

“Historians don’t like to use the word unprecedented but when you take the two things together… I feel comfortable using the word unprecedented given the intensity of the criticism and the collective nature of the criticism,” said presidential historian Gil Troy, who co-wrote a book on the history of presidential elections.

Will it matter in the election?

The political consequences of so much friendly fire being directed at Trump from within the ranks of his White House staff is unclear, as Trump’s support has withstood countless scandals so far.

Chervinsky, the presidential historian, noted that “hardening party lines” in recent years means that voters are quicker to dismiss criticism of their party leader, even from within their own ranks. Instead, the critic is often the one who loses support, at least in the Trump-era GOP. Former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a conservative Republican from a prominent GOP family, lost her party leadership position and was defeated in a primary after becoming a vocal critic of Trump’s actions surrounding Jan. 6.

“There’s less of a swing in public opinion and less room to change minds but that doesn’t mean there’s no room to change minds,” Chervinksky said.

But the number of former Trump administration officials criticizing him and the scope and severity of their criticism is “extraordinary,” she added, and could be a factor with late-deciding swing voters.

Howell said attacks “from your own tribe” tend to be more politically damaging.

“Those kinds of critiques, when they involve character or when they involve policy, there’s good research shows, can break through partisan divisions and corrode base levels of support,” Howell said.

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