We don’t yet know which senior administration official authored today’s astounding New York Times op-ed suggesting that President Donald Trump’s aides are actively thwarting him in an attempt to protect the country. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter. Indirectly, the op-ed’s real authors are the Republicans of the United States Congress.
In theory, in America’s constitutional system, the different branches of the federal government check one another. When a president acts in corrupt, authoritarian, or reckless ways, the legislative branch holds hearings, blocks his agenda, refuses to confirm his nominees, and even impeaches him. That’s how America’s government is supposed to work. But it no longer does. Instead, for the past year and a half, congressional Republicans have acted, for the most part, as Trump’s agents. Not only have they refused to seriously investigate or limit him, they have assaulted those within the federal bureaucracy—the Justice Department and the FBI, in particular—who have.
So in the absence of this public, constitutional system of checks and balances, a secret, unauthorized system has emerged to replace it. Because Congress won’t check the president, the president’s own appointees are doing so instead. Evidence of such behavior has been leaking out since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. Defense Secretary James Mattis thwarted the president’s directives on torture and transgendered Americans serving in the military. John Bolton rushed through a joint-summit declaration reaffirming NATO before Trump had a chance to muck it up. Bob Woodward has just reported that National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn stole papers off Trump’s desk to prevent him from undoing America’s trade deal with South Korea. Now a senior Trump aide has told the world: “Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
In so doing, the unnamed official has eviscerated the core argument that congressional Republicans—and their defenders in the media—have used to justify their refusal to check Trump: democracy. Again and again, Republicans have declared that since the American people elected Trump, it would be antidemocratic to thwart his policies and neuter his presidency. But, as it turns out, Trump’s aides are doing exactly that—just without the democratic mandate or public accountability that America’s constitutional system envisions. Republicans in the executive branch are doing what Republicans in Congress would likely also do were they shielded by anonymity—but are too cowardly to do in the light of day.
Their cowardice forces Americans to choose between two horrific options. The longer Trump’s aides execute a palace coup, the more they feed the paranoia about the deep state that inclines Trump’s supporters to endorse whatever extralegal, extraconstitutional, tyrannical measures he dreams up. But if Trump succeeds in freeing himself from the West Wing Lilliputians who constrain him, the United States will be at the mercy of a president so unfit that he threatens basic freedoms, the global economic system, and world peace. Imagine a White House staff, and a government bureaucracy, willing to faithfully execute Trump’s orders in the wake of a large-scale terrorist attack on American soil or China’s sinking of an American ship in the South China Sea. It’s terrifying.
The longer this shadow system of checks and balances substitutes for the legitimate one envisioned by America’s Founders, the more imperiled the American republic grows. If you didn’t already have sufficient reason to elect a Democratic House and Senate this fall, you have one now.