On 14 Feb 2017, Trump Administration White House advisor Kellyanne Conway stated on Twitter:
“I serve at the pleasure of @POTUS. His message is my message. His goals are my goals.” (source)
This oath of obedience was to the backdrop of another White House staff member, Stephen Miller, on the same day proclaiming (at length) similar statements of obedience and loyalty stating that the President’s directives should not be questioned.
While the statement “I serve at the pleasure of the President” has been used as far back as the 1700s, the recent emphasis on unwavering loyalty and obedience to the President seems to be new. The phrase was originally intended to mean that White House staff are ‘at will’ employees and can be let go without a substantive reason.
The phrase “I serve at the pleasure of” is commonly used in reference to royal leaders, such as “I serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure.” A member of the King’s Court might use that phrase. It conveys a kind of absolute unquestioning loyalty and subservience.
Novels and movies about Medieval times sometimes offer a romanticized portrayal of loyalty to ‘The Crown.’ In the book Honor & Roses: A Medieval Romance by Elizabeth Cole, there’s a heroic moment where one of the main characters, Luc, states “We serve at the pleasure of the King.”
A 2007 article in the New York Times says the phrase dates back to 1789:
“…one phrase has been used repeatedly to defend the conduct of the White House: the attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. It seems to ascribe a royal air to the president, as though, if it contributed to his pleasure, an attorney or two might be beheaded. What is the origin of this phrase?… The origin is the Latin durante bene placito regis … which translates as “during the pleasure of the king.” This did not mean “while the king was having fun”; it meant that nobody could hold an official position against his will. … We hear at pleasure from cabinet members whenever they come under fire, with reporters demanding to know if they intend to resign. At a press conference two months ago, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, ‘The attorney general, and all political appointees, such as U.S. attorneys, serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States.’ … It seems to me that the pleasure principle could use some updating in our political discourse.” [Source: “At the Pleasure” by William Safire, New York Times, 13 May 2007.]
Members of the armed services and military are ‘at will’ employees:
“Military officers are the leaders of the military, and instead of enlisting in the sense that enlisted military men and women do, they are commissioned officers who serve indefinitely at the pleasure of the President of the United States.” [Source: “Military Officer Rank Structure” by Justin Sloan, Military.com]
In April 2000, the phrase “I serve at the pleasure of the president” was used in the popular television show West Wing in season 1, episode 19, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” During an important scene of that episode, the staff pledge allegiance to the President.
Presumably inspired by that West Wing episode, the George W. Bush White House Administration began using the phrase at about the same time. It’s not clear whether this was life imitating art, or art imitating life, but use of the phrase became more common at that time. Maybe the show helped revive the use of the phrase.
In 2005, John P. Deeben wrote on the subject for the National Archives, in the article “Serving at the Pleasure of the President.” (Prologue Magazine, Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No.4)
By 2006, the phrase was still being used, and in some cases acted upon:
On December 7, 2006, the George W. Bush administration’s Department of Justice ordered the unprecedented midterm dismissal of seven United States Attorneys. … The U.S. attorneys were replaced with interim appointees, under provisions in the 2005 USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization. … In July 2010, the Department of Justice prosecutors closed the two-year investigation without filing charges after determining that the firing was inappropriately political…” (sources)
The Bush administration was taking the position that “U.S. Attorneys hold a ‘political’ office, and therefore they are considered to ‘serve at the pleasure of the President.'” So, if they don’t serve the political interests of the President, they can be fired simply for political reasons.
After this controversy, for the next 10 year, people realized that the President of the United States isn’t a king or a dictator, but it is in fact the President who serves at the pleasure of the people, not the other way around.
Kellyanne Conway and others in the White House staff seems to be suggesting that they and others are to serve the President. It will be interesting to see what actions may be taken (or attempted) by the President and his administration as a result.