Shadow Government

Trump Officials Can’t Rescue Their Reputations With Op-Eds

They argue their actions are saving the republic, but they are really trying to save themselves.

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, hosts a cabinet meeting in the White House on Aug. 16. (Contreras/Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, center, hosts a cabinet meeting in the White House on Aug. 16. (Contreras/Pool/Getty Images)

It is not often that I agree with President Donald Trump, but here it goes: The anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed published last week—and those political appointees who found themselves quietly nodding along in agreement or dishing similar details to Bob Woodward—is gutless.

That’s not because I find the substance of this person’s claims unbelievable or the assurance that they are acting as a “steady state” unconvincing. It is because the author wants to have it both ways—to serve at the pleasure of the same president while working to undermine him.

No one can pretend the op-ed’s description of Trump is a revelation; it is the man we’ve known all along. In fact, from the comfort of the shadows, the piece makes the very same arguments Trump’s 2016 political opponents made repeatedly against his candidacy in the first place, in both the Republican primary race and the camp of his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.

These dangers were well understood and widely articulated. Trump’s fundamental dishonesty, his instability, his admiration for dictators, and his approach to alliances as protection rackets were the exact concerns highlighted in the now infamous letters signed in 2016 by most of the leading lights of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, which became the foundational documents of the so-called Never Trump movement. Go back and read them. There’s nothing new here.

The fact that the Never Trumpers so publicly and eloquently pointed all this out more than two years ago is a particular problem for today’s anonymous dissenters and the many other administration officials they claim to represent. In each instance, these people had a choice: They said yes to a political appointment in the Trump administration. They knew what they were getting into, understood the reputational and moral (and for some, legal) risks, and hoped for the best.

However they justified their decision to take a job in the Trump administration while others would not—or could not because they had signed the Never Trump letters—one cannot deny their ambition played a substantial part. Now they are trying to convert their ambition into heroism. They want to enjoy the honor of government service while reviling the leader who put them there. They argue that their actions are saving the republic, but they are really trying to save themselves.

Career officials—civil servants, foreign service officers, military and intelligence personnel—are different. These apolitical public servants serve the country no matter the president in power. That does not mean they can avoid moral dilemmas or face tough questions of when to push back, speak out, or even resign. But as my former colleague Loren DeJonge Schulman wrote recently in a piece for the Washington Post, instead of hounding these career officials out of office or cheering their every act of defiance, we should support them doing their jobs and keeping U.S. institutions strong.

Being a loyal political appointee doesn’t mean you must be a sycophant or agree with every presidential decision. As a political appointee, I was sometimes frustrated and disillusioned by a president’s actions. For example, during the last few years of President Bill Clinton’s administration, when I served at the State Department, I was horrified by his personal behavior. I believed deeply in the president’s agenda and had faith in his leadership and policy judgment, yet I found the impeachment spectacle demoralizing.

Of course, Trump’s problem is much worse than a sordid sex scandal—although he’s got a few of those, too. However abhorrent Clinton’s behavior was, no one believed, as the unnamed Trump dissenters say, that the president was “anti-democratic,” prone to “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” and that any successes were achieved in spite of him.

Political appointees at any level, from cabinet rank to junior staff, should ask themselves a simple question: Do they support the re-election of the president in 2020? If the answer is yes, then they should serve faithfully without trying to distance themselves from the president they serve. They should own that they will forever be seen as Trump officials.

Yet if the answer is no—and one assumes the anonymous author and most of Woodward’s sources do not support Trump’s re-election—then they must ask themselves why they remain in their politically appointed jobs.

Like many former officials in Washington, I have hanging in my office memories from my government service, including the commission certificates I was given for being a senior presidential appointee. At the bottom of these parchments is the signature of the president I served, Barack Obama. Looking at that today is a reminder of the small slice of history I was part of, the values he championed, and the example he set. Years from now, when Trump’s appointees look up at their walls and see the distinctive signature “Donald J. Trump,” what will they think?

Derek Chollet served in the Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He is currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government. @derekchollet

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