In defence of Chris Liddell

On Twitter there is an active campaign against New Zealander Chris Liddell, due to his job working for Donald Trump as Deputy Chief of Staff.

It seems to be guilt by association. He worked for (they call it enabled) a bad person so he must be a bad person.

I previously pointed out that on that basis you’d decry Jacinda Ardern as she worked for Tony Blair, whom many on the left regard as a war criminal. Trump is more of a constitutional criminal than a war criminal.

I don’t think you should get a total pass on reputational damage based on who you choose to work for, but neither should it define you. So I think it is worth looking at Liddell in more than a binary context.

First of all Lidell is not a Trumpist like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. His background is as an orthodox Republican, whose mentor was actually Mitt Romney – definitely one of the good guys.

Liddell’s main background is business, not politics. He was arguably New Zealand’s most successful corporate businessman having been a CFO at three of the largest companies in the world – International Paper, Microsoft and General Motors.

His start in US politics seems to have been in 2011 when he joined Romney’s campaign and was in charge of transition planning should Romney win. He seemed to be a standard fiscal conservative – said he wanted less regulation, less tax, less government. He wrote a book about the transition planning, which has been described as a “bible” for future transitions.

Then in 2016 he took on a similar role with the next Republican candidate, Trump. He was in charge of operations for the transition and then Trump offered him a very senior role – Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives. He took a salary of just $30,000 (less than the executive assistants got) and headed up the Strategic Development Group and Office of American Innovation.

Now how fair is it to criticise him for taking the job in 2017? Certainly many thought Trump would be a terrible President (like me, and I was right) but the fact of the matter is he had won the election, and he was going to be President and it is a unique opportunity to serve in the White House. The argument then was better to have competent people in the White House.

Now here is the interesting thing about his tenure in Trump’s White House, which I find fascinating. Generally it seems the White House was a terrible place to work. Every day the media had stories leaked by some staff against other staff. Trump was mercurial and people fell in and out of his favour, and this became known. There were literally thousands of stories about senior staff and controversies around them, and speculation on when they would be gone.

To the best of my knowledge, there were no stories about Liddell. Despite such terrible chaos and infighting, he somehow managed to piss no one off, and just got on with the job. He got promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff in 2018. I think it takes a rare set of abilities to navigate such a toxic environment and not get caught up with any of the factions or personalities.

After the insurrection of 6 January, it was reported that Liddell considering resigning but decided to stay on for the last 14 days as he was in charge of the transition for the outgoing administration and I think it was a fair call that his early departure would hurt the Biden Administration more than the Trump administration.

So does this mean I give Liddell a total pass for working for Trump? Not quite.

I do think it was reasonable in 2017 to give Trump a go. Many conservatives in the US supported Trump’s economic and business policies. But the big question mark was always over Trump himself and whether he was a fit person to be President.

I do think that Liddell should have exited the White House as it became clearer Trump did not have the psychology or judgment to be a fit President. The obvious time would have been once the Ukraine affair was exposed. Someone who tries to blackmail a foreign country with legally appropriated aid money, in return for manufacturing dirt on his political opponents, is not someone who should be President.

If Liddell had exited back then, I think he would be in a much better position, than he is in today. By choosing to stay for so long, he does carry some stigma from the worst things Trump did.

That is not to say that should define him. I though Helen Clark did constitutionally outrageous stuff with the Electoral Finance Act, the pledge card scandal and legislating under urgency to stop a by-election. But that doesn’t mean I view her career and achievements only by the worst things she did. I supported her in the campaign for UNDP Administrator, as I don’t believe in judging people as a binary bad/good.

So yes I think Liddell should have exited the Trump White House before he did, and there will be some justifiable stigma by not doing so. But I don’t think that should stand in the way of him making a contribution back in New Zealand. He is obviously a global talent.

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