A Profile in Courage or Cowardice

On Wednesday, September 5, 2018, The New York Times published an op-ed by an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration under the headline “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump White House.” The official writes that they’re one of many “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [President Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” To put it in other words, “don’t worry because we Trump appointees are working from the inside to stop Trump from fulfilling parts of his agenda we disagree with.” The author’s motives were immediately questioned and reasonably so. But you have to wonder why this person just doesn’t quit. Is it good for people aware of Donald Trump’s dangers to stay inside the administration in an attempt to undermine it from within?

The op-ed’s major problem is with its lack of accountability. The “senior official in the Trump administration” raises a serious question on whether Donald Trump is fit to be president (oh, hell no) before slipping past any follow-up responsibility. Instead of leading a public debate of possible 25th Amendment invocation to remove Trump from office, the writer encourages Americans to trust the administration officials in the background. The author claims, “it’s okay, we got this.” For they‘ll thwart his “misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

But how much credibility should Americans give to someone who takes shots from a secret hideaway? The alleged presence of secret saviors shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every White House adviser should see it as part of their job to smother bad ideas and save the president from misguided impulses. But anonymously bashing one’s boss is disloyal and more likely makes everyone in the organization paranoid than fix anything. Though knowing the kind of boss Donald Trump is, I can hardly blame the writer for bashing him. Yet, unlike what Donald Trump states in his outbursts, it’s not treason in the slightest. Apparently, this Trump official wants a paper trail to show the world in case things go south.

The op-ed tells us nothing that we already know. It’s already established that Donald Trump is morally bankrupt, has no coherent worldview outside the primacy of his own ego and interests, and moves from objective to objective. How many times a week do news outlets and comedians broadcast his tweets? The op-ed depicts Donald Trump as anti-trade and anti-democratic while characterizing his leadership style as “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.” According to the writer, Trump goes on long, repetitive rants and makes “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.” Yet, you can easily see this whenever you tune on the news. But don’t worry, these “unsung heroes” will protect America from Trump’s “erratic behavior.” If they really feel the need to subvert Trump to protect the country, why not go all the way and get that fucking piece of shit out of the White House.

The piece suggests that the United States is currently under a “two-tier” presidency. If Donald Trump wants to do something his underlings like, they go along with it. If he wants to do something they don’t, they find ways around it. This is consistent with Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear where he describes senior officials taking things off Trump’s desk to prevent him from seeing them. However, make no mistake that those working for the Trump administration and carrying out any part of his agenda are enabling him for their own benefit, not undermining him. If Trump is so incompetent that his most trusted advisers have to play peekaboo for national security’s sake, they should work to get him out of office. Not sparing us from his cruelest instincts isn’t enough, especially if they involve sabotaging Obamacare, separating families at the border, pandering to white supremacists, being way too friendly to authoritarian dictators like Vladimir Putin, getting rid of essential regulations to satisfy major corporations, and neglecting Puerto Rico and Flint. Furthermore, Trump believes that the Justice Department should allow his allies get way with crimes but prosecute his enemies maliciously for whatever’s under the sun. Like any dictator, he thinks it should be illegal to criticize or read any criticism of him. And he believes that ethnic and religious minorities he’s bound to respect. Not to mention, Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court and will very well be confirmed. Yet, Kavanaugh could bring Trump’s authoritarian agenda to fruition. More importantly, Kavanaugh believes that Republican presidents are above the law and won’ answer basic questions about conversations he’s had regarding the special counsel investigation. While the Kavanaugh nomination may be less fun and dramatic than the anonymous op-ed from the White House, it will have a far greater impact on American life.

Alas, these Trump officials are cowards too afraid of facing the consequences. While they hand-wave the notion, thus: “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” How is utilizing the 25th Amendment cause a constitutional crisis while admitting to subvert a so-called democratically elected president wouldn’t? The truth is Republicans like the “two-track” arrangement and don’t want Trump out of office. Because they’re advancing a right-wing economic agenda that any other batshit Republican president would’ve championed while preserving the popularity of Trump’s base. Everyone who works for Trump and his Republican allies knows he’s dangerously unfit for to be president. Yet, they’re willing to abdicate their constitutional responsibilities, sacrifice democratic principles, sell their souls, and leave their conscience at the door in a Faustian exchange for upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. Furthermore, the fact the author defends Trump’s policy agenda of “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” illustrating their conservative leanings. The writer even notes in the beginning that “ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” That’s not a voice of a resister, that’s an enabler. A resister like myself wants the Trump administration to go down in flames.

Nonetheless, the anonymous op-ed allows the author to have it both ways. If the Trump administration goes down in flames, they can claim to have heroically resisted the orange tyrant. If Donald Trump and his swamp toadies from the Washington cesspit triumph, they can claim to being a loyal caretaker to the conservative agenda Trump was “elected” to implement. Either way, while this self-serving cowardice might get the op-ed author off the hook, history will remember the Trump administration as a dumpster fire disaster. 2 years in, the Trump administration has led to has led to displacement and death of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico, systematic abuse of children as immigration policy, arbitrary status revocation for black and Latino immigrants posing no threat to public safety, abdication of the federal government’s responsibility to defend the civil rights of racial and ethnic minorities, attempted subversion of federal law enforcement, and the enrichment of Trump and his affluent allies at taxpayers’ expense.
On the other hand, given the stakes up to including a literal nuclear war, there needs to be some people quietly working backstage to prevent the worst from happening. Perhaps, in the future, they will be in a position to do more when Republicans are willing to do something about Donald Trump. Of course, you can do something about that by voting straight Democrat at the polls come November. Also, you might want to call out your relatives and community for abandoning their souls to hateful and banal Trumpism and Fox News. But for now, a little resistance is better than no resistance at all.

Make no mistake that the root cause of this clusterfuck is that the Republicans chose to back an unfit and dangerous president for selfish and crass political reasons. After all, since they’re getting the policies they want, they see no reason to challenge him. Unless the Democrats sweep the 2018 midterms, there’s no reason to believe that one or several officials coming out and condemning the unrespectable Donald Trump as a threat to democracy will ever change the minds of any Republican who knows of Trump’s worst habits full well. This forces well-meaning Trump officials into a terrible choice. On one hand, they can stay and do their best to undermine him where they can. On the other hand, they could quit and potentially let Trump staff the White House with cronies and ass kissers. Choosing the latter could cause irreparable damage to American democracy, a major war, a global economic crisis, or all 3 at once.

Indeed, these Trump officials may be enablers but they’re not helping their boss implement terrible policies while trying to make them better on the margins. In fact, they’re actually blocking some of these policies from coming into existence, especially the worst ones. Not to mention, the United States is an advanced democracy with Donald Trump up for reelection within 2 years and may lose his congressional majority in 2 months. White House officials aren’t indefinitely helping an occupying power but holding the line until the legitimate political process has a chance to curb Trump’s excesses. Sure they haven’t always succeeded. And we’re not sure if the author or anyone else has even tried or wanted to try to do anything to help immigrants, refugees, Puerto Ricans, Obamacare enrollees, or any other groups of people whose lives the Trump and his administration has imperiled significantly.

Nonetheless, the vast swath of bureaucracy appears to be on the dissenting officials’ side. Since they have a real opportunity to the contain the last election’s consequences until they can be reversed. Yet, given the nearly unimaginable stakes here, it’s too dangerous for anyone of goodwill to quit. We need utilitarians around to mitigate the risks of a true disaster. Remember when Donald Trump spent the latter half of 2017 threatening Pyongyang with “fire and fury?” Well, Trump’s antics undercut then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts. While the Defense Department had quietly ramped up preparations for war while Trump constantly brought up the idea of attacking North Korea in tweets and in meetings. It’s certainly apparent that a war between North Korea and the US would’ve cost millions of lives. Thankfully, we didn’t get that. Instead of a globally destructive conflict, we got a summit in Singapore and a sham deal between Trump and Kim Jong Un which seems to have moved us of the war footing for now. Sure, the summit was utterly embarrassing, but at least nobody got killed. Still, there are few practical checks to the executive branch’s ability to initiate force. If Trump decided to follow through with his “fire and fury” threats, he could’ve ordered a strike on North Korea’s nukes. But somehow, he changed his mind.

The op-ed author doesn’t go into detail on how they can assert various claims in their piece as well as they’ve personally stopped some of Donald Trump’s horrendous ideas. But a couple years of concrete reporting has uncovered concrete examples of Trump’s staff “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses.” Last June, White House Counsel Don McGahn refused a direct order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller as well as cooperated with the Mueller investigation and sometimes didn’t tell his boss what he was doing. Then there’s White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly controlled the flow of information to Trump, blocking conspiracy theorists like Infowars’ Alex Jones or right-wing trolls like Chuck Johnson from getting into Trump’s ear. According to Bob Woodward, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to convince Trump that trying to assassinate Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad was a bad idea. Since the move would’ve been arguably illegal and possibly set off a dangerous confrontation with Russia.

Another incident has National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn stopped Trump from withdrawing from the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement by stealing the letter that would’ve ordered withdrawal from his desk. Since withdrawing from that agreement would’ve wreaked havoc on the alliance and American businesses. If Trump had gotten his way in these cases, we would’ve had a constitutional crisis, war, and economic pain. If it weren’t for people who understood the potential consequences, everything could’ve been much worse. Of course, this doesn’t mean Trump’s staff doesn’t always succeed nor that Donald Trump’s worst policies have all been stopped. We still got the travel ban, family separations, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, and pointless and dangerous undercutting of Obamacare, all of which has caused real pain. But as bad as things are, it’s easy to imagine them being much worse.

Some may argue that the anonymous op-ed writer identify, resign, and present evidence justifying an invocation of the 25th Amendment, impeachment, or the first necessary step toward either outcome or a Democratic Congress after the November elections. This might be noble in theory, there’s no evidence that congressional Republicans would go along with checking Donald Trump’s power. Since they went along with him knowing full well who he is. For one invoking the 25th Amendment is far more difficult than it sounds since it would require the vice president and the majority of the cabinet to decide whether Trump is fully incapacitated. But Trump could simply refuse to accept the outcome, which kicks the issue to the GOP-controlled Congress with 2/3 voting to agree to remove Trump from office. That’s not going to happen as long as Republicans dominate Capitol Hill. Then there’s the idea of a Mike Pence presidency which Democrats really don’t want at this point.

However, regardless of what some may think, what Trump officials are doing isn’t a coup but an extension of bureaucratic politics to extraordinary times. As political scientist Naunihal Singh told Vox, “This is an extreme form of things we see often, when cabinet secretaries or military officers attempt to steer policy ‘from below’ by limiting information flow to the President.” Besides, we’ve seen this before but mainly when presidents are incapacitated or physically ill. Since it can only be pulled off only when the center’s so weak that everyone grabs power. What different is that the United States is currently governed by a man so unfit for the office that his White House functions as if he’s in a hospital. But unlike previous presidents, Donald Trump isn’t going to die or get better. The constitutional remedies for such situation like the 25th Amendment or impeachment aren’t plausible options right now. So Trump aides recognizing the reality are stuck with a quiet resistance.

If anything, the most persuasive criticism of the op-ed isn’t the author doing something wrong in the White House. But rather going public in an op-ed endangers the quiet anti-Trump insurgency back stage. As Cato Institute scholar Julian Sanchez tweeted, “If you were really concerned about protecting the country from an erratic Trump — rather than, say, trying to pre-salvage your post-administration reputation — you probably wouldn’t write something like this given its predictable consequences. I can pretty much guarantee that this: (1) Triggers an epic tantrum and makes Trump even more paranoid than he already is, & (2) Sets off a mole-hunt that results in suspiciously competent persons being purged & replaced with loyalist nuts and/or Trump family members.” So writing it in a newspaper probably wasn’t a wise move. But since it has, we must hope that the author manages to rally other “resistance” members or even inspire other Trump officials to join. Sure it’s naïve and these quiet resistors aren’t the most reliable since they might sometimes enable their monstrous boss enact terrible policies they agree with. But in dark times, it makes sense to cling to whatever shred of hope we got.

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