The ‘Steady State’ Is Shirking Its Obligations

If the president is unfit to serve, the anonymous op-ed authors have a duty to their country to come forward publicly.

Donald Trump
Leah Millis / Reuters

The recent publication in The New York Times of an anonymous op-ed by a “senior official in the Trump administration” brings into sharp relief the extent to which various members of the Trump administration are not just knowingly working to curb the president’s recklessness, but are doing so based in part upon the belief that those impulses are the result of something deeper and more fundamentally unstable about the man himself.

I long had assumed the president was prone to childish tantrums and had little time and less inclination to understand the mechanics of governance. I was nonetheless skeptical of the legitimacy of concerns about his mental or psychological health, especially when assessed from afar. Such concerns should never be haphazardly invoked. The op-ed, though, claims that a cadre of senior appointees—which it dubs the “steady state”—has taken it upon itself to steer the government through choppy waters of erratic presidential behavior. Despite having good reason to doubt the president’s ability to fulfill his duties, it suggests, these officials are leaving an unstable individual in a position of unparalleled power so that they can achieve specific policy objectives.

And the op-ed is far from the only evidence that this is the case. Several other anonymous “senior White House officials” have leaked to media outlets such as Axios that they have privately admitted to one another that the president is “unstable, and at times dangerously slow.” These reports repeatedly point to “adults in the room” protecting the government from a president whose stability they personally question.

There is a logic behind supporting officials who stay in an administration to ensure the president’s recklessness is kept in check. That logic, however, cannot and should not override the constitutional system of government Americans ultimately hold most dear. President Donald Trump—warts, foreign interference, and even potential criminal collusion notwithstanding—is the duly elected chief executive. He received the necessary votes from the Electoral College. He took the oath of office as president of the United States. He is the constitutional head of the executive branch.

My message to the “steady state” is simple: If you truly believe what you say about the president’s purportedly erratic, unstable, and antidemocratic behavior, your obligation is not to stand by and do the dirty bureaucratic work behind the scenes. Your obligation to the country, and to the Constitution, is to come forward, publicly, and inform both Congress and the American public of exactly what you have seen.

This is probably not the most popular opinion among at least some of my fellow Never Trumpers. I have been vocal and clear in my concerns about the policy choices advanced by the president, his capacity to competently handle foreign diplomacy, and his profound disregard for equal application of the rule of law. More than once I have said—as have other Never Trumpers—that the president appears to be out of his depth on issues of policy substance, and that the Trump administration appears to be advancing its goals in spite of him rather than under his direction. The president’s continued interference with, and attempted disruption of, the ongoing special-counsel investigation into alleged Russian collusion is particularly appalling and reflects his view that he can treat the Justice Department similarly to how he used his legal “fixers” in his private life.

But those concerns don’t justify what these officials describe. If the president is not mentally, physically, or psychologically fit to continue serving, or if he has engaged in reckless behavior in conflict with his oath of office, there are remedies built into our Constitution that are designed for this moment. There is the removal procedure of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment—and there is impeachment. Those are the lawful means by which a president can be removed from office prior to the completion of his term.

It is unlikely that either remedy would be pursued at this moment, especially with the midterm elections a mere two months away. That is neither here nor there. It is the right of our duly elected representatives in Congress to decide whether such a drastic step should be taken. It is not the right of anonymous senior administration officials, no matter how noble or well-intentioned they are in their efforts, to engage in the equivalent of an administrative coup d’état so they can maintain their temporary grip on government power and authority.