In the immediate aftermath of last year’s election—before anyone could know for sure how thuggishly the Trump transition would conduct itself, or how resistant the president-elect would be to running the government in the public interest—large swaths of the conservative professional class faced a moral quandary. “It’s safe to assume that the figures who denounced [Donald Trump] most vocally will not be in line for key positions,” wrote conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “But for others, especially the many younger public servants who would normally staff a Republican administration, a hard question looms: If they fear how Trump might govern, can they in good conscience work for him?”
Douthat, among others, argued persuasively that this reluctant class of public servants, professional climbers, and experienced hands should agree to join the administration precisely because Trump was an object of fear—but only if they were prepared at some point to quit in protest. If the presidency descended beyond a gray zone of morally questionable leadership into a realm of lawlessness and corruption, “then there will be an obligation not to serve, but to resign.”
Six months later, we have very clearly entered that realm. On Monday, the conservative legal scholar Jack Goldsmith, who served in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, wondered on Twitter, “How much can *executive branch officials* indulge the presumption of regularity in their work? And: To the extent that they can’t, how long do they continue to serve?”
Trump officials’ answers to those questions will differ depending on their positions, but the number of them who can claim their continued service is morally requisite is dwindling rapidly by the day.
Obviously, not everybody who set their misgivings aside to join the Trump administration was a chaste actor. Some surely gave themselves over to thoughts of high-status job titles and future paydays, and are past the point of no return. But to the extent that moral considerations entered into one’s decision to serve Trump, the time to reconsider has arrived. To a deeply depressing extent, the decision to leave or stay turns on two overlapping questions:
If I quit, am I likely to be replaced by a Trump apparatchik?
How much damage would someone like, say, Roger Stone do in my job?
From this view, the people who have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate have the least to fear from resigning, since they run the least risk of handing the reins of government over to vandals and thugs. Senate Republicans have been nearly as pathetic as their House counterparts in serving as a check on Trump, but their influence is evident in the fact that Trump’s cabinet and sub-cabinet nominees have been mostly indistinguishable from those we’d expect of a generic Republican president.
Nearly all of these officials have cause to resign. The most senior members of Trump’s foreign policy team have long been at pains to reaffirm the importance of NATO, hoping to undo the damage Trump’s victory did after he campaigned hand in glove with Russia, against the Western alliance. Under their influence, Trump briefly softened his rhetorical assault on NATO. But in Europe two weeks ago, he upbraided U.S. allies in public and—to the surprise of national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—unilaterally stripped from his prepared remarks a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to the joint defense of all NATO signatories.
Trump has undermined career staff and senior leadership at the Justice Department, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, by constantly compromising the legal work they do on behalf of his initiatives:
Trump endangers the country with ad hoc policy and then makes liars and collaborators of the people who agreed to work for him. The Rosensteins and Mattises of the administration should be asking themselves whether they could do more good by resigning and blowing the whistle than they can by filling positions Trump can’t easily clog with loyalists.
There are, of course, many political jobs in any administration that don’t require Senate confirmation, and little stopping Trump from filling them all with Twitter eggs. But the people in those jobs today don’t all do equally sensitive work. Someone like White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer isn’t holding the republic together by refusing to resign. Same goes for scores of other aides, advisers, lawyers, and operatives who enlisted with the Trump administration under morally complex conditions. Even at a great distance from the most consequential decisions Trump is making, the moral argument to serve has transformed into the moral obligation not to prop up or paint a Potemkin facade on grave wrongs.
The person facing the most serious dilemma is probably McMaster. Being national security adviser has destroyed McMaster’s public credibility, but we also know that Trump will happily replace him with a compromised toady; Trump has reportedly even complained to confidants that he misses his first, disgraced national security adviser, FBI suspect Michael Flynn. The legendary defense reporter Tom Ricks has advised McMaster to quit. The counterpoint is that we in the public don’t know how seriously dysfunctional things are on the inside and how much noble work someone like McMaster might be doing. Looking like an idiot in public is Sean Spicer’s considered decision; but for the national security adviser, public derision might be a small price to pay to avoid armed conflict or the deep compromise of the political independence of the intelligence services.
But just because it might be right for McMaster to stick around doesn’t mean the same moral logic applies to every job in the Trump administration.
Very senior career staff—the people with most to lose by leaving, and most inertial power to quietly thwart Trump’s excesses—are reaching the end of the line. The career diplomat serving as acting ambassador to China has resigned over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
The career diplomat serving as acting ambassador to the U.K. contradicted the president’s Twitter broadside against the mayor of London after the weekend’s terrorist attack. It fell on him to stave off a diplomatic crisis and serve as the voice of U.S. decency in exile because Trump fired all Senate-confirmed ambassadors rather than allow them to serve in an interim capacity while he staffed up his administration.
The right-wing super-lawyer George Conway, husband to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, recently withdrew his name from consideration to head the DOJ’s Civil Division. Liberated from the need to kowtow to Trump, he excoriated his wife’s boss on Monday for undermining the very people who would have been his colleagues.
If Trump is putting career civil servants in impossible positions, and scaring off the next tranche of nominees who had the good fortune not to be confirmed yet into his administration, then many other people should be asking themselves whether their work subordinates the national interest to their professional ones. McMaster’s predicament is not the rule; and to those who can’t honestly claim to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, it’s time to pack it in and tell your stories.