Given a second opportunity to revise and extend his original, ignominious response to the deadly, racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend, President Donald Trump instead descended to the lowest point of his squalid presidency. Flanked in the Trump Tower lobby by smiling cabinet officials, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (and as Chief of Staff John Kelly looked on glumly), Trump volunteered praise for some of the white supremacists who rallied around a monument to the confederacy.
“You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” the president said. “Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.” Referring to the “Unite the Right” demonstrators, Trump said, “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.” He added, “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
It may not have dawned on Chao, as Trump’s comments ended, just how severe the backlash would be. Asked by reporters afterward to comment on Trump’s ongoing feud with her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao remarked, “I stand by my man. Both of them.”
The right answer would have been: “The president’s feelings about my husband are of no concern to me any longer, because I resign.” That’s the only morally acceptable conclusion at this point for any senior Trump officials who don’t consider themselves tribunes for white nationalism. The related issue of the GOP Congress’ complicity in Trump’s wide-ranging misconduct is an important one, but it is inherently more complex than the question of continued service in the executive branch—as are most legislative decisions, dependent almost by definition on large-scale collective action.
These collective action problems can be hard to resolve, but nearly every solution arises from cues members of Congress take from influential figures outside of their branch of government. There is a small but powerful cohort of presidential advisers and cabinet members who will happily leak to the press that they continue to serve to protect the country from Trump’s unfitness for office. They want to be seen, in Axios’ words, as “The Committee to Save America.”
They will only live up to the image they’re trying to project by resigning immediately.
It would be unprecedented for a U.S. president to be forsaken by his cabinet, but Trump’s own conduct makes it necessary. The proper consideration here isn’t how frequently senior officials resign for reasons of conscience—it’s exceedingly rare—but what kinds of moral and ethical breaches have driven officials to resign in the past.
Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned in 1915 because he believed President Woodrow Wilson’s response to the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine was too belligerent.
Assistant Treasury Secretary Dean Acheson resigned in 1933 because he could not abide President Franklin Roosevelt’s abandonment of the Gold Standard.
Trump’s earlier conduct has recalled Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, in which the senior leadership of the Justice Department resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox—though it can be fairly argued that Nixon essentially pushed them out.
In more recent history, the most high-profile resignations-on-principle have been lower level public servants.
Joseph N. Cooper, a black Ronald Reagan official who helmed the Labor Department office that enforced equal opportunity hiring among federal contractors, resigned because the administration paid “lip service” to anti-discrimination laws.
Bill Clinton lost two officials—White House adviser Mary Jo Bane and Department of Health and Human Services adviser Peter Edelman—who resigned in protest of the 1996 welfare reform law.
George W. Bush almost presided unwittingly over the collapse of his own Justice Department when his senior aides tried to subvert the DOJ leadership’s conclusion that a post-9/11 warrantless spying program had been implemented unconstitutionally. But his late intervention forestalled such a fiasco.
These were extraordinary moments, but there was at least some moral grey area within the four corners of each underlying dispute—some substantive decision at hand that people of good faith could decide to live with or not. There is no moral gray area in Trump’s racism, let alone in his wielding of the power of the presidency to give succor to neo-Nazis.
Trump has done his aides a favor in stripping all ambiguity from the dilemma of serving under him. He has not issued a controversial order and asked ideologically rigid people to follow it. He has instead confronted them with the question of whether a racist president who vouchsafes neo-Nazi violence deserves to be propped up by government executives of good conscience. It’s an easy call, and those who don’t see it that way will be noted in the public record when they keep showing up to work.