The Face of the Problem: How Subordinates Shield Executives from Blame

Sarah Croco, Jared McDonald, and Candace Turitto

            How do executives avoid catching heat when their administration is caught in a lie? Can they deflect blame by using a subordinate as a public shield? In this article we investigate how the public reacts when a subordinate member of an administration is made the “face of the problem.” Across two experiments—one centering on then-President Trump and another on a fictional mayor—we find that executives can successfully side-step the negative fallout from a lie when a subordinate serves as the public face of an administration’s lie.

            This idea originated during the family separation crisis that took place at the US-Mexico border in 2018. This crisis was precipitated by a new “zero tolerance” policy which led to thousands of children being separated from their parents as they crossed the border. The public outrage that followed was intense and demanded a reply. Amidst this tumult, the White House began circulating a claim that the president did not have the authority to end the family separation policy without Congress. These statements were also advanced by administration’s subordinates, most notably then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who continued to offer this justification despite growing public outcry.  Approximately a week later, in an abrupt about face, President Trump signed an Executive Order in the Oval Office that ended the policy unilaterally.

            This turn of events struck us worthy of further investigation for two reasons. First, the lie inherent in the Trump administration’s behavior was starkly apparent. The administration had insisted the president was powerless to do anything, yet a week later he singlehandedly ended the policy. Second, the identity of the person on camera was intriguing. President Trump was not one to shy away from talking to reporters or going on television. Why was Nielsen, a Cabinet member, doing the talking while the public was demanding answers from the top? The intense public scrutiny surrounding this event led us to investigate how it affected views of Trump administration officials, and how similar situations would play out in other administrations.

            Our paper centers on two parallel vignette experiments where all respondents read about a policy decision, but only some respondents read that this policy decision represented a case of dishonesty (allowing us to calculate a “cost” for the lie). Half the respondents read about the executive acting as the face of the lie, while half read about a subordinate acting as the face of the lie. The first experiment involved the Trump administration’s lie about not being able to stop the family separation policy; the subordinate was DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The second utilized a (fictional) mayor of a town in Pennsylvania whose administration lied about their ability to fund a school lunch program; the subordinate was the city manager. After reading their randomly assigned treatment, all respondents were asked to evaluate both the executive and the subordinate on how each handled the particular situation and on their overall job performance.

            Our results indicate that when a subordinate is the public face of the problem, executives are able to avoid or minimize damage to situational approval. As the figures demonstrate, throwing a subordinate under the proverbial bus has its advantages when it comes to situational approval. Both Trump and the mayor took a hit when they were the actor discussed in the vignette. This backlash was blunted, however, if their subordinate was the one who talked about the lie in public. Trump goes from nearly a nine-point drop in approval to an insignificant dip, while the mayor’s 22-point drop is cut in half once his city manager takes the heat. Turning to general approval, things get slightly more complicated. For Trump, who is well-known, his overall job approval does not budge, regardless of the treatment the respondent received. As we explain, this is to be expected; citizens know more about Trump, so it will take more than one event to move their opinion of him. Therefore, it is also sensible to find that the city manager blunts some of the (fictional) mayor’s drop in overall approval, but does not eliminate it entirely.

            The Trump administration had abnormally high rates of turnover in the Cabinet. We posit that episodes such as the 2018 border crisis may shed light on why this occurred.  And although our studies focused specifically on lying, there are implications for any executive suffering through a negative news cycle. Our findings speak to the incentives executives face when they are caught in a lie but have subordinates readily available to carry the costs.

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