For political observers and reporters, every day since the November 2016 election seems to have contained some sort of absurd twist or development. The pace of the Donald Trump–era news cycle has made it difficult to separate signal from noise—the truly important, like a Supreme Court–nomination battle, from the simply bizarre or dramatic, like anonymous Trump officials testifying to the president’s incompetence.
On Wednesday, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed from a senior official claiming to be part of the “resistance” inside the Trump administration. The piece sparked a media frenzy, with some commentators, including my colleague David Graham, alleging that government officials are engaged in a kind of coup against the elected president. “If protecting the rules requires tearing down the rules,” Graham writes, “what is there to be gained?”
But the Times op-ed is not resistance; it is public relations. It’s a first-person version of the anonymously sourced pieces claiming Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been restraining the president’s worst impulses. And it joins an avalanche of efforts by Trump officials, afraid the walls are closing in on his presidency, to save their own skins. As emotionally erratic as the president appears to be, his consistent adherence to an ethno-nationalist agenda suggests that the president has enough focus not to be deterred from something he really wants by someone removing a paper from his desk or ignoring a direct order. Bureaucratic infighting is a common feature of presidential administrations; what makes this one unique is Trump’s distinct inability to do the job he was elected to do.
The op-ed shows that Republicans are “beginning to think about how they’ll be positioned in a post-Trump era, however it arrives,” Mark Schmitt wrote. The president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, his former personal attorney Michael Cohen, former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and the former foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos have all confessed to or been convicted of crimes, with Cohen telling a federal court that the president ordered him to break the law. An upcoming book by the journalist Bob Woodward depicts the president as unstable, incompetent, and corrupt, and surrounded by a staff that knows he is unstable, incompetent, and corrupt. As public evidence of this mounts, the president and his supporters are increasingly reliant on the conspiracy theory that Democratic partisans in federal law enforcement are framing the president, the only way to rationalize increasingly concrete evidence of criminal and corrupt behavior.
The author is also clearly not a Democrat, or even a liberal. Language equating free trade with democracy—“President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic”—and defending the president’s policy agenda of “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” reveal the author’s political inclinations to be conservative. To make it as clear as possible, the author 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.”
The biggest open secret in Washington is that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. His staff knows it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows it. House Speaker Paul Ryan knows it. Everyone who works for the president, including his attorneys, knows it. But they all want something, whether it’s upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. The Constitution provides for the removal of a president who is dangerously unfit, but those who have the power to remove him will not do so, not out of respect for democracy but because Trump is a means to get what they want. The officials who enable the Trump administration to maintain some veneer of normalcy, rather than resigning and loudly proclaiming that the president is unfit, are not “resisters.” They are enablers.
The anonymous Times op-ed writer is no different. While claiming that they and other officials are “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses,” the op-ed provides few examples of this, and the author must know that the mere existence of the piece will only inflame those impulses. Already Trump has declared that “the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!” If the president ever decides to issue unconstitutional orders to the Justice Department or the Pentagon, he and his supporters will point to this op-ed and claim that drastic action was necessary to “protect democracy.”
The real threat to American democracy comes not from self-aggrandizing current or former Trump officials who take to the press to burnish their legacies, but from the president’s authoritarian impulses, and a unified Republican Party that has abdicated its constitutional duties to ensure that executive power is not turned into a partisan weapon. President Trump believes that the Justice Department should allow his allies to get away with crimes but maliciously prosecute his enemies, that it should be illegal to criticize or read criticism of him, and that religious and ethnic minorities have no rights he is bound to respect.
Although there are grounds for Republicans in Congress and in the White House to use their constitutional authority to remove Trump based on this alone, Trumpism must lose at the ballot box for its defeat to mean anything at all. Trumpism must not be martyred.
While the political press was consumed with the identity of an op-ed writer, the Senate was considering the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, whose ascension to the Supreme Court would bring Trump’s authoritarian agenda closer to fruition. Americans should worry less about who the author of the anonymous op-ed is, and more about who Kavanaugh is: a man who believes Republican presidents are above the law and will not answer basic questions about conversations he has had regarding the special-counsel investigation. The battle over the Kavanaugh nomination is less fun and dramatic than an anonymous Trump official claiming the mantle of “resistance,” but it will have a far greater impact on American life.
If the Trump era ends in disgrace, the author of the Times op-ed will claim to have heroically resisted the tyrant Trump. If it ends in victory for Trump and his allies, they can claim to have been a loyal caretaker to the conservative agenda Trump was elected to implement. This is self-serving cowardice. The Trump administration has led to the displacement and death of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico, the systematic abuse of children as immigration policy, the arbitrary revocation of status for black and Latino immigrants who pose no threat to public safety, an abdication of the federal government’s duty to defend the civil rights of racial and ethnic minorities, the attempted subversion of federal law enforcement, and the enrichment of the president and his allies at taxpayers’ expense. The hands that enabled this will never be clean. Dishing to Woodward, or the Times, will not change that.