We're Watching an Antidemocratic Coup Unfold

Acts of sabotage against the president are perilous to the American system of government. They're also self-serving.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The title of Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, contains a multitude of meanings. For one thing, it describes the attitude of many of President  DonaldTrump’s own aides toward his judgment.

It’s not just that many sources were willing to tell Woodward damaging stories about Trump: The most stunning examples are those in which top aides reportedly thwarted his will. Even more stunning is an anonymous op-ed published in The New York Times Wednesday afternoon written by a purported “senior official in the Trump administration.”

The writer says that senior Trump officials “are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them.” The official adds: “We believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”

The op-ed is so bizarre that it is tempting to dismiss it as fantasy—akin to the obviously bogus Twitter accounts that flourished early in the administration claiming to be by saboteurs inside the White House. (While the Times has likely done its homework, expect the president to question the veracity of the source.) Yet what the anonymous official says lines up closely with the accounts in Woodward’s book, in which officials steal documents, act on their own, and simply disregard orders from the president.

If you believe that Trump does not have the judgment and temperament for office—not a difficult conclusion to draw—this is a win of a sort. Yet the actions described in the book and in the op-ed are extremely worrying, and amount to a soft coup against the president. Given that one of Trump’s great flaws is that he has little regard for rule of law, it’s hard to cheer on Cabinet members and others openly thwarting Trump’s directives, giving unelected officials effective veto power over the elected president. Like Vietnam War–era generals, they are destroying the village in order to save it. As is so often the case in the Trump administration, both alternatives are awful to consider.

In the prologue to Woodward’s book, obtained by The Atlantic, the economic adviser Gary Cohn conspires to swipe a letter from the president’s desk terminating the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement. Cohn considered it a danger to national security, so he grabbed it.

“I stole it off his desk,” Cohn told an associate, according to Woodward. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”

When it became clear that there were other copies of the letter floating around, Staff Secretary Rob Porter snapped those up, too. Trump never noticed, and the letter wasn’t signed.

In another instance Woodward describes, Trump reportedly reacted to a chemical-weapons strike by the Assad regime in Syria by telling Defense Secretary James Mattis, “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” Woodward describes what happened next:

Yes, Mattis said. He would get right on it.

He hung up the phone.

“We’re not going to do any of that,” he told a senior aide. “We’re going to be much more measured.”

In the immediate circumstance, Mattis’s alleged refusal to obey was almost certainly for the best: Trump was reportedly ordering a massive military strike and a targeted decapitation of a government with no forethought, no strategy, no plan. In the longer term, however, it’s unsustainable for the secretary of defense to decide which orders from the president he’s willing to obey and which he’s not. That’s a road to chaos.

There are other, similar examples throughout Woodward’s book. (Though Woodward’s prose style and coziness with sources have been subject to criticism, he is widely regarded as a meticulous and reliable reporter.) Senator Lindsey Graham reportedly felt that Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was stalling on a request from Trump for a plan to attack North Korea. When Trump ordered the Defense Department to reverse the acceptance of transgender troops, over the secretary’s objections, a Mattis aide reportedly told Steve Bannon that Mattis would try to reverse the order. Because the president’s directive was so vague, the Pentagon was able to effectively freeze action for months, ultimately landing on a version that gives Mattis leeway over implementation.

Woodward writes that then–National-Security Adviser H. R. McMaster “believed Mattis and [thenSecretary of State Rex] Tillerson had concluded that the president and the White House were crazy. As a result, they sought to implement and even formulate policy on their own without interference or involvement from McMaster, let alone the president.” McMaster worked by a different protocol, drilled into him by the military, which holds civilian rule as sacrosanct: He often disagreed with the president and fought hard for his own views, but once Trump had made up his mind, it was McMaster’s job to execute his orders.

There is at least one historical occasion on which previous Cabinet members were ready to sabotage a president this way. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, worried by Richard Nixon’s heavy drinking, instructed generals not to launch any strikes without his say-so—effectively granting himself veto power over the president. There’s no evidence he ever actually used that veto, though.

The scale of the apparent resistance to Trump is much grander than Schlesinger’s fail-safe—even if it’s limited only to what we already know, which seems unlikely. While the president has railed against a “deep state” of liberal bureaucrats throttling his administration, the reality is much stranger: The saboteurs are the president’s own appointees and close aides.

Apologists for figures like Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly have argued that whatever compromises they make by being in the administration, they are serving and protecting their country best by remaining in office and acting as a check on the president. Insofar as they are able to talk the president out of his worst impulses, that might be convincing. But if checking the president requires disobeying orders and acts of deception, it becomes harder to defend.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders blasted the op-ed in a statement, saying, “The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive, rather than support, the duly elected president of the United States. He is not putting country first, but putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign.”

Say what you will about the wisdom of voters, but it is the bedrock of the nation, and Trump is the duly elected president, as Sanders says. Cabinet members are at least confirmed by the Senate, but they’re still unelected. Officials like Cohn and Porter are subject to even less scrutiny, as they are appointed directly to their posts. If protecting the rules requires tearing down the rules, what is there to be gained?

Recognizing the bind that top officials serving an unfit president could face, the nation in 1967 amended the Constitution to provide for the removal of a president who “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The Twenty-Fifth Amendment creates a lawful path for a top government official who believes the president cannot serve: Work to remove him, rather than disobey legal orders.

According to the anonymous senior official in the Times, the idea has been discussed:

Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.

This is astonishingly shortsighted. The writer, and anyone else who thinks this way, overlooks a major flaw: Any situation in which unelected officials are sabotaging the president through a soft coup is already a constitutional crisis, as my colleague David Frum has written.

Not only are these acts of sabotage legally perilous; the leaks about them are self-serving. Woodward does not reveal his sources, either in general or in specific instances, but a read of the book strongly suggests that Porter and Cohn are among those who spoke to him. By spreading word that they stood up to the president behind closed doors, these figures hope to burnish their reputations and distance themselves from the stain the Trump presidency leaves on nearly everyone it touches. In doing so, they’ve fingered themselves in another questionable pursuit. If the price of defending democracy and rule of law is to destroy both, the price is too high.