Political appointees are another matter. Yes, they take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but they are representatives of the president, and are presumed to be committed to implementing his plans and his platform. If they cannot say as much openly, if they construct a distance between themselves and him on the most important issues, then they are lying to themselves and to others. It may not seem to present an immediate moral crisis for a deputy assistant secretary for warehouse maintenance, but challenges to one’s integrity in public service can crop up in the oddest places.
Those who are already at the center of government have a much tougher problem. Unless they had been living in an isolation chamber during all of 2016, they had to have gone in knowing that Trump was awful. The name Trump will be tattooed invisibly on their foreheads going forward; henceforth in the right light it will be brightly illuminated. They may, in later years, like to say, “I worked for Rex Tillerson” or “I served honorably at the Treasury.” Those around them, including those whose respect is worth having, will think, “No, you signed up for Trump and you know it.”
The issue becomes much more serious, however, if as Jamie Kirchick has argued, a real crisis impends. The argument for senior individuals like Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster to stay on the job is twofold. They can put brakes on truly calamitous decisions by coaxing or persuading their mercurial boss or blunting his nastiest advisers. If Trump wanted to issue an order to publicly smear ISIS prisoners snatched in Syria with bacon and pig’s blood, and Mattis convinced him not to, that would be such a service. That is why I testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee before Trump’s inauguration that it should change the law to allow Mattis to serve as secretary of defense despite his having recently left military service. He would, I said at the time, at least be in a position to modify or block willfully stupid and dangerous actions.
The second, and even darker truth, is that if and when the time comes to remove Trump from office through impeachment, the 25th Amendment, or some kind of resignation, the country will need responsible people in place to manage its affairs. We will want the kinds of people who can responsibly judge whether the president must go, and initiate procedures not yet used in our history to legally strip him of power; who will ensure that the process of handing the office over to Vice President Pence is smooth and expeditious; who may even be able to convince Trump that he will go down in history as an extraordinary and sublimely successful American politician if he voluntarily passes the key to the Oval Office to someone else.
Both arguments have weight. After all that has happened in the first eight months of the Trump presidency, and particularly after his shout-out to white supremacists, what does not carry weight are arguments that Americans should still want the president to succeed. The Wall Street Journal’s admonition to readers on August 18th that they should not “root for a presidency’s disintegration” is wrong. The sooner the Trump presidency disintegrates, the better, and the best argument in favor of good people sticking around is that they can accelerate the disintegration and manage it cleanly.