The Ukrainian scandal has been marked by profiles in both courage and cowardice.
A succession of career officials from the State Department and the Department of Defense—beginning with Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Ukraine—have defied the Trump White House, testifying under oath to Congress about presidential abuses of power. In so doing, they have thrown a gauntlet at the feet of other administration officials and congressional Republicans, challenging them to take a similar public stand.
Yet, apart from claiming a process foul, most Senate Republicans have chosen—once again—to be seen but not heard in the face of presidential misdeeds. In turn, we learned that the anonymous author of last year’s bombshell New York Times op-ed, declaring the existence of a covert “resistance” within the Trump administration, has chosen—once again—to be heard but not seen, announcing a book deal.
Other than the mention of an organized resistance, the anonymous op-ed revealed little that was not already self-evident as far back as August 2016, when I joined 50 former GOP national-security officials in signing the so-called Never Trump letter. (I served as deputy national security adviser and deputy national economic adviser to President George W. Bush.)
That letter predicted that Donald Trump would be “the most reckless president in American history,” citing his lack of knowledge about and faith in the Constitution, his ignorance of foreign affairs, his unwillingness to separate truth from falsehood, and his predilection for embracing adversaries and threatening allies.
Despite the obvious warning signs, the anonymous author of the op-ed willingly chose—perhaps even actively sought—to serve Trump, even as the president coddled Vladimir Putin, embraced Kim Jong Un, alienated NATO, caged asylum seekers, and drew a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and counterdemonstrators in the bloody aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia.
The chaos he has now unleashed in the Middle East by kowtowing to Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, and the revelation that he demanded a political quid pro quo for aid to Ukraine, are but the latest examples of how Trump has weakened America abroad and democracy at home.
While the anonymous op-ed was published before these recent events, even then the danger Trump posed was so apparent that its author acknowledged that the president “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”
Yet, despite this danger, the author refused—and apparently still refuses—to break publicly with the administration, arguing that “many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous,” citing “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”
So the real revelation in the op-ed was not of an organized resistance, but of the personal political calculus its author and other so-called unsung heroes have employed to cherry-pick the policies they favor, while “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses.”
The author justified this Faustian bargain by citing “duty to this country,” explicitly invoking—and misappropriating—the legacy of former Senator John McCain, whom the author termed a “lodestar” of “honor in public life.”
Indeed. But by prioritizing their political agenda over the danger Trump poses, the members of the putative resistance within the administration put party and personal gain before principle and country—something McCain rarely did and, when failing to do so, acknowledged with a humility that the op-ed lacked.
He would have seen the op-ed author and the resistance for what they are—small-minded enablers, not high-minded, much less heroic, guardrails, who have shown as little respect for the democratic process as the president whose worst impulses they claim to be thwarting.
McCain believed democracy should be practiced in sunlight, not shadow. It is easy to imagine him giving the resistance the same thumbs-down he gave his fellow Republicans for bringing the health-care bill to a vote in violation of regular order—Senate-speak for an open and inclusive process, consistent with our democratic system. That system includes legitimate safeguards against a dangerous executive, including a Congress empowered with oversight and investigative powers; an independent judiciary; and a Constitution that contains processes—elections, impeachment, and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment—to remove a president.
According to the op-ed, its anonymous author and other “adults in the room” considered invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, but “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” Of course, that is precisely what Trump himself has now done. Yet, the anonymous author still hides in the shadows, just as congressional Republicans hide behind process, both implicitly propping up a morally bankrupt regime.
Instead of supplanting the will of the people for their own will, the op-ed author and the resistance should empower the people. If they are career officials and fear retaliation, that means availing themselves of whistle-blower protections to disclose wrongdoing on the record, as was done in the case of Ukraine. If, as seems likely, they are political appointees, they should do the honorable thing—resign, publicly stamping their names and reputations on the evidence from within of the dangers the Trump presidency poses without.
Better still, they should take their evidence of wrongdoing and testify under oath before the bipartisan House investigatory committees, as Bill Taylor and other officials have done. By demonstrating a conviction in the democratic process matched only by their courage, these individuals have dared the unseen resistance to stand up, and the unheard Republicans to speak out.
But until they do so, Anonymous’s soon-to-be-released book, A Warning, will surely be just that: a warning not only about Trump, but also about the current lack of honor in public life, and about officials, whether appointed or elected, who put their own power and political interests above the interests of the people—and the democracy—they have sworn to serve.
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