The fundamental problem with the “adults” theory is that it assumed a group of subordinates could successfully trick their boss for years.
Tillerson did try to manage Trump. He reportedly argued for staying in the Paris agreement and for certifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. When Trump was publicly threatening to go to war with North Korea last year, Tillerson tried to reach out to Pyongyang and start negotiations.
But he never managed to persuade Trump to see things his way. And when he lost an argument, he’d end it by saying, “It’s your deal,” per the New York Times — a habit that reportedly annoyed the president.
Trump would even publicly shame Tillerson. After Tillerson’s offer to open negotiations with North Korea last year, Trump sent a tweet telling him to stop “wasting his time”:
Maybe Tillerson is just not a particularly persuasive guy. And it’s an open secret in Washington that Trump and Tillerson didn’t like each other very much on a personal level.
But the deeper problem, confirmed by virtually every well-sourced White House reporter, is that Trump truly hates being managed. When people tell him what to do, he’s inclined to do the opposite.
“Aides say the quickest way to get Trump to do something is to tell him he can’t,” Axios’s Mike Allen writes.
The whole theory of the “adults in the room” was that they could somehow manage this man who hates to be managed. That they could steer him away from destructive policy ideas he repeatedly endorsed on the campaign trail, like starting a trade war or tearing up international agreements, through clever stratagems or sheer force of will.
But this could only go on for so long before Trump realized he was being played — that his advisers didn’t agree with him on policy and were simply trying to stop him from doing what he wanted. Once Trump figured that out there was nothing the so-called adults could do to stop the president. He’s their boss, and he could overrule them easily if he wanted.
Eventually, the buck stops with Trump. Either the aides acquiesced and tried to make the best of a bad policy or they left the White House — quitting like Cohn, or getting fired like Tillerson.