The Lost Art of Resigning in Protest

Public servants used to quit on principle. Now, they leak to Bob Woodward and write op-eds in The New York Times.

Susan Walsh / AP

The Trump administration was barely six months old when Walter Shaub decided that he could not abide its corruption any longer, that his job as the federal ethics watchdog had been neutered by the regime’s mockery of ethics. Then he did something exceedingly rare in Washington: He resigned in protest, and explained himself on national television. In an interview with ABC News, he said: “I really always thought that the ethics rules were strong enough to protect the integrity of the government’s operations … until now.”

Fourteen months later, the ex-director of the Office of Government Ethics tells me, “I felt it was important to be open and transparent about it. The Trump administration was failing to follow the ethics [rules], to follow the norms and traditions of our government. I felt that staying on the job would make me complicit. If I stayed, I feared that I would be window dressing for corruption.”

Shaub’s departure didn’t make a splash—in part because it was trumped by the news that the president’s eldest son had met during the campaign with a Russian who’d promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, in part because most Americans didn’t know who Shaub was—but he did join the tiny list of high- and middle-ranking public servants who have quit on principle throughout American history. The honor roll includes William Jennings Bryan in 1915 (protesting U.S. policy toward Germany); Anthony Lake, Roger Morris, and William Watts in 1970 (protesting the invasion of Cambodia); Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus in 1973 (refusing to fire the Watergate prosecutor); Jerald terHorst in 1974 (protesting Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon); Cyrus Vance in 1980 (protesting the ill-planned Iranian-hostage rescue); Peter Edelman, Mary Jo Bane, and Wendell Primus in 1996 (protesting Bill Clinton’s workfare law); and a smattering of diplomats who could no longer justify working for Trump. As Ruckelshaus said years ago, “there are lines” that cannot be crossed.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Shaub—like so many others who are fed up with this White House—has no patience or sympathy for the Trump insiders who are advertising themselves as the unsung heroes of the benighted republic. The implicit message of Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, and the explicit message of the anonymous column posted Wednesday on The New York Times’ website, is that some Trump aides are staying on the job to thwart the most detestable instincts of a boss who’s manifestly unfit for the highest office. As the Deep Throat of 2018 proudly stated, “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”

But, as Shaub points out, it’s hard to rationalize or defend “a dysfunctional relationship between an addict and an enabler … The enablers haven’t stopped children from being put in cages. They haven’t stopped this new practice of taking passports away from Americans living at the border.” Nor, he notes, have they stopped Trump from threatening the free press, or from tweeting demagoguery in the wee hours.

Not everyone wants the senior aides to publicly quit in protest. Brit Hume, the senior Fox News analyst, tweeted that restraining Trump from the inside is “the Lord’s work.” Joe Klein, the journalist who anonymously wrote Primary Colors and was later unmasked, said on Facebook that the Times author “committed an act of patriotism … We need such people now.” Bob Corker, the lame-duck Republican senator of Tennessee, said of the Times piece, “That’s why I think all of us encourage the good people around the president to stay.” They essentially want a James Schlesinger, the Nixon-era defense secretary who stayed on the job and told military commanders that if an unhinged Nixon were to give a nuclear launch order, they should check with him first.

Even when Trump officials have been publicly embarrassed—as were UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats when the administration undercut their tough talk on Russia—they have vowed to soldier on. (Coats said on NBC News, after Trump deferred to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki: “As long as I’m able to have the ability to seek the truth and speak the truth, I’m on board.”)

Critics are not convinced. With each new manifestation of the Trump administration’s mendacity, with each new indictment and felony conviction, with each impulsive or feckless act in the realm of national security, top Trump appointees have faced growing demands to quit as a matter of principle. Charlie Sykes, the former talk-radio host who regularly assails Trump’s betrayal of conservatism, tweeted the other day, “If the president is indeed amoral, unprincipled, unstable, and unfit for office, should he be enabled? At what point do witnesses need to step forward and lay their reputations on the line? Isn’t that the point of putting country first?”

But why are such acts—Shaub calls it “doing the right thing to serve our democracy”—so exceedingly rare? Because people fear that quitting could brand them as renegades and hurt future employment prospects in a company town. Because it’s heady to pull the levers of power, the ultimate ego rush, and people are loath to give it up. As the academic and essayist C.S. Lewis lectured in 1944, the temptation to join “the inner ring” is replete with moral compromise: “You will be drawn in … simply because at that moment, when the cup is so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world … And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still.”

Shaub publicly rebelled because he toed a line that he could not cross. John Feeley, the American ambassador to Panama, reached his own point of no return last winter; he later wrote that Trump had “warped and betrayed … the traditional core values of the United States.” Other diplomats in China, Latin America, and Mexico have bailed on Trump in more muted fashion. And last summer, seven in the 27-member National Infrastructure Advisory Council—tasked with helping guide cybersecurity policy—resigned en masse. In a group letter, they said that Trump was neglecting cybersecurity and undermining what they called America’s “moral infrastructure.” But like Shaub, none of these resignees dominated the news.

Shaub tells me, “I doubt I would’ve made a noisy withdrawal in times other than these. But I felt I was pulling a fire alarm because the government was on fire.” It’s clear, however, that congressional Republicans will continue to pretend they don’t smell the smoke—unless people at the top of Trump’s heap declare in public that abetting this president is a mortal threat to their souls. As Lewis warned, the slippery slope of complicity “may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude … You will be a scoundrel.”