Anonymous Failed

The highest-profile internal critic of the administration now admits that the basic premise of his argument was mistaken.

DHS / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

When a “senior official” in the Trump administration published an op-ed in The New York Times in September 2018, detailing how he and others had worked to sabotage President Donald Trump, it seemed like an important moment for the emerging “resistance” movement.

No longer was it only angry liberals, disaffected moms, and disillusioned old-school Republicans. Suddenly we had evidence of the resistance inside the very halls of power. The same week, news emerged from Bob Woodward’s book Fear about officials at the time, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and the economic adviser Gary Cohn, refusing orders or simply hoodwinking the president. For those who opposed Trump, these stories provided a ray of hope that he could be contained or at least curtailed by officials who still believed in the rule of law.

Today, as Trump’s first term in office nears its end and he vies for a new one, the op-ed writer revealed himself as Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security who now works at Google. The news is a letdown. First, some readers had speculated that the writer was a Cabinet member or another household name, rather than a nonconfirmed appointee at a federal department. Second, Taylor had already come out as a Trump opponent, endorsing the Democrat Joe Biden in an ad for the group Republican Voters Against Trump.

Yet the news would have been an anticlimax no matter who Anonymous had been, because in retrospect, Taylor’s Times column was the high-water mark of internal resistance to Trump. The premise of the piece was that supposedly upright citizens had the power to keep the president from committing his most egregious violations. Instead, time has proved the opposite: When Trump wanted to do something, there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. The only things that could deter the president were his own short attention span and lack of managerial competence.

I wrote at the time of the op-ed that internal sabotage was no way to behave in a country that values the rule of law. Unelected officials can (and should) refuse orders that they believe to be unconstitutional or wrong, but they must do so openly and risk being fired, rather than using cloak-and-dagger methods; otherwise, they undermine the rule of law in the name of preserving it. It turns out that this form of resistance was not only morally and politically questionable; it was also futile, as Taylor admitted in a statement today.

“I was wrong,” he wrote, “about one major assertion in my original op-ed. The country cannot rely on well-intentioned, unelected bureaucrats around the President to steer him toward what’s right. He has purged most of them anyway.”

This has been the pattern throughout the administration, in which officials who resisted Trump’s worst impulses (usually by accommodating other bad ones) have been pushed out, and replaced with hackish loyalists with few qualifications save an unstinting loyalty to the president.

Consider Taylor’s own former stomping grounds, the Department of Homeland Security. The first head of the agency under Trump was John Kelly, who though ideologically simpatico with the president bristled at his approach to process. Kelly was soon promoted from DHS to be White House chief of staff, where he tried in vain to contain Trump before eventually being shoved out the door.

Kelly’s replacement at DHS was Kirstjen Nielsen, a career Republican functionary, rather than Trump loyalist. Like Kelly, Nielsen tried a bit to restrain Trump, but she was no more successful. She ended up being the face of the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border, although the policy originated in former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department. Despite defending this atrocity, Nielsen was eventually fired for refusing an order she believed was unlawful. Her interim successor, Kevin McAleenan, met the same fate for the same reason. Now DHS is led by Chad Wolf, who has proved that no order from Trump can faze him.

The family-separation debacle, perhaps the most morally outrageous of the administration, took place in the summer of 2018, and it casts an unflattering light on Taylor’s op-ed. The column now seems like an attempt at reputation laundering—a way for Taylor to protest, after the fact, that he was not on board with the policy his agency was executing, even as he participated in it.

The author of the op-ed, who also published a 2019 book called A Warning, had promised to reveal himself by the election. By unmasking himself now, with six days before Election Day, Taylor has followed through on that promise, though it’s hard to see what effect that will have, with so many voters already having cast ballots and few undecided ones left. Then again, there’s little reason to believe that an earlier revelation would have made much difference. We know enough by now to understand how the Trump administration works. (Taylor himself has been a vocal critic of the administration for some time now, under his own name, further emphasizing the anticlimactic nature of the revelation.)

The months immediately following Taylor’s op-ed showed how ineffective the internal-resistance strategy was. Trump got the tariffs that Cohn had undermined. Mattis resigned when the president overruled him on American troops in Syria. White House Counsel Don McGahn, who had refused to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was forced out. So was Kelly. Meanwhile, Trump found in Bill Barr a new attorney general who was both loyal and an effective operator.

The internal resistance was just one of several failed hopes for a deus ex machina that would stop Trump. Other candidates included Mueller (hobbled by Barr, but crippled by his own narrow vision of his role), the federal courts, and Congress, in the form of impeachment. One of Trump’s greatest insights as president was that if he ignored opponents, rules, and laws, practically no one could stop him.

If the American people elect a president who is willing to do bad things, the only thing that can stop him is the American people. This election is a referendum on whether they wish to do so.