‘Stay Away’: A ‘Never Trumper’ on Serving in the Trump Administration

The ethics of accepting, or refusing, a political appointment from the president-elect

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated on November 16, 2016

On Tuesday, a week into the transition of power from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, Eliot Cohen issued a warning about the coming Trump administration—and the credentials that could count most for those serving in it. “After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away,” he wrote on Twitter. “They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.”

Cohen, a top official in George W. Bush’s State Department and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, later clarified that a friend on Trump’s transition team had asked for names of potential appointees, only to lash out when Cohen emphasized the importance of choosing qualified people to run the country’s national-security agencies and departments. “It became clear to me that they view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls,” Cohen told The Washington Post on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he elaborated in those pages:

One bad boss can be endured. A gaggle of them will poison all decision-making. They will turn on each other. No band of brothers this: rather the permanent campaign as waged by triumphalist rabble-rousers and demagogues, abetted by people out of their depth and unfit for the jobs they will hold, gripped by grievance, resentment and lurking insecurity. Their mistakes—because there will be mistakes—will be exceptional.

Trump transition officials have not commented on Cohen’s allegations, so we’re hearing only one side of the exchange. But Cohen’s impressions are still worth keeping in mind as Trump announces his picks for critical posts like secretary of state and secretary of defense, and fills out the rest of his administration. Cohen is suggesting that, in Trump’s world, loyalty trumps all other factors, including experience and qualifications, and that such an approach is fraught with danger.

Cohen’s message is significant not only because of what he said, but because of the journey he’s been on in coming to terms with Trump. Last March, when a Donald Trump presidency was but a fever dream for the candidate’s detractors, Cohen and 121 other Republican national-security experts condemned the likely GOP nominee. They denounced Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, his rough treatment of Mexico and other U.S. allies, his advocacy of torture and trade wars, and his praise for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin. They characterized him as erratic, dishonest, and hostile to American civil liberties. “[A]s committed and loyal Republicans,” they wrote in an open letter, “[w]e commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”

“Hillary is the lesser evil, by a large margin,” Cohen, who helped organize the letter, said at the time. Trump’s victory would be “an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy."

Hillary Clinton is now hiking in Chappaqua, while the Unmitigated Disaster, in Cohen’s view, is headed to the White House. So how should “Never Trumpers” like Cohen, and Republicans who have been quieter about their qualms about Trump, respond? Should they lend their experience, if not their enthusiastic support, to a president who has never held public office and could use the guidance? Is the principled stand to defend their views and values from within the government, or from without? What are the ethics of working for a president who you not only fundamentally disagree with, but view as a possible threat to the country and its principles?

Ross Douthat of The New York Times has argued that, unless Trump’s presidency descends into “naked authoritarianism,” ambivalent Republicans have a “moral responsibility” to serve in Trump’s administration and to check the president’s “worst impulses,” particularly in the relatively free-wheeling, high-stakes realm of foreign policy. David Luban, a law professor at Georgetown University, has made the opposite case, arguing that serving in a Trump administration could mean acquiescing to Trump’s authoritarian impulses and targeting of political opponents. “Don’t tell yourself you can tame the beast, because the beast will tame you,” he writes.

Two days after the election, Cohen offered his own anguished answer. He would not be serving President Trump—“They will have no use for me, or, to be fair, I for them”—but he urged like-minded Republicans to consider taking positions in the new administration:

It seems to me that if they are sure that they would say yes out of a sense of duty rather than mere careerism; if they are realistic in understanding that in this enterprise they will be the horse, not the jockey; if they accept that they will enter an administration likely to be torn by infighting and bureaucratic skullduggery, they should say yes. Yes, with two conditions, however: that they keep a signed but undated letter of resignation in their desk office (as I did when I was in government), and that they not recant a word of what they have said thus far. Public service means making accommodations, but everyone needs to understand that there is a point where crossing a line, even an arbitrary line, means, as Sir Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, letting go without hope of ever finding yourself again.

It goes without saying that friends in military, diplomatic, or intelligence service—the career people who keep our country strong and safe—should continue to do their jobs. If anything, having professionals serve who remember that their oath is to support and defend the Constitution—and not to truckle to an individual or his clique—will be more important than ever.

Cohen’s about-face on Tuesday doesn’t just hint at coming schisms among Republicans on foreign policy (Cohen is associated with an interventionist wing of the Republican Party, embodied by George W. Bush, that Trump has long criticized). It also suggests that Cohen and Douthat and Luban might have been asking the wrong question. They were debating whether qualified Republicans who didn’t support Trump should serve in his administration. But the more pertinent question may be whether qualified Republicans who didn’t support Trump will be asked to serve in his administration, particularly in its upper ranks.

It’s common, of course, for presidents-elect to reward their most stalwart supporters after a bruising campaign. But it’s less common for presidents-elect to prioritize loyalty above all else. Barack Obama, for example, appointed loyalists like David Axelrod and Eric Holder to top jobs, but he also made his primary foe, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, and asked Robert Gates, Bush’s defense secretary, to stay on in his role. Cohen’s concern is that a host of unqualified Trump yes-men, appointed by a vengeful Trump, could run U.S. foreign policy into the ground.

On the other hand, Trump’s team may be signaling that they are skeptical not of all experience, but rather the kind accrued in Washington and typically considered an asset during presidential transitions. As Trump himself vowed during a foreign-policy speech in April, “I will ... look for talented experts with new approaches, and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”