John Kelly’s stricken look, head slumped on chest, as President Trump brayed a defense of the “fine people” on both sides in a Charlottesville march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, said it all. A man raised to believe in a code of decency and honor had to endure language from his boss which would have earned one of Kelly’s Marine lieutenants the chewing-out of a lifetime. And he had to listen knowing that despite his efforts to instill discipline in the White House, he could expect more rhetoric—lies, bombast, and provocation—that would inflame some of the worst memories and darkest impulses of the American soul. If Kelly had not chosen to be there fully aware of who Donald Trump is, one might have felt sorry for him.
The spectacle of Kelly and two of Trump’s leading economic aides, Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin, both Jewish, listening on August 15th to Trump’s rant rekindled the question of decent men and women serving in the administration. Should they quit, or as some suggest, stay to serve the Republic?
The answer is different for different people. Young people who seek careers in the civil service, military, diplomatic corps, or intelligence services should do so— career people do not represent any particular administration; their seniors must stay in, because some of the most effective brakes on Trump’s excesses will come from officials stubbornly adhering to constitutional norms. This is not the Deep State of Steven Bannon’s dark fantasies; it is the deep fidelity of public servants to the law.
Political appointees are another matter. Yes, they take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but they are representatives of the president, and are presumed to be committed to implementing his plans and his platform. If they cannot say as much openly, if they construct a distance between themselves and him on the most important issues, then they are lying to themselves and to others. It may not seem to present an immediate moral crisis for a deputy assistant secretary for warehouse maintenance, but challenges to one’s integrity in public service can crop up in the oddest places.
Those who are already at the center of government have a much tougher problem. Unless they had been living in an isolation chamber during all of 2016, they had to have gone in knowing that Trump was awful. The name Trump will be tattooed invisibly on their foreheads going forward; henceforth in the right light it will be brightly illuminated. They may, in later years, like to say, “I worked for Rex Tillerson” or “I served honorably at the Treasury.” Those around them, including those whose respect is worth having, will think, “No, you signed up for Trump and you know it.”
The issue becomes much more serious, however, if as Jamie Kirchik has argued, a real crisis impends. The argument for senior individuals like Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster to stay on the job is twofold. They can put brakes on truly calamitous decisions by coaxing or persuading their mercurial boss or blunting his nastiest advisers. If Trump wanted to issue an order to publicly smear ISIS prisoners snatched in Syria with bacon and pig’s blood, and Mattis convinced him not to, that would be such a service. That is why I testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee before Trump’s inauguration that it should change the law to allow Mattis to serve as secretary of defense despite his having recently left military service. He would, I said at the time, at least be in a position to modify or block willfully stupid and dangerous actions.
The second, and even darker truth, is that if and when the time comes to remove Trump from office through impeachment, the 25th Amendment, or some kind of resignation, the country will need responsible people in place to manage its affairs. We will want the kinds of people who can responsibly judge whether the president must go, and initiate procedures not yet used in our history to legally strip him of power; who will ensure that the process of handing the office over to Vice President Pence is smooth and expeditious; who may even be able to convince Trump that he will go down in history as an extraordinary and sublimely successful American politician if he voluntarily passes the key to the Oval Office to someone else.
Both arguments have weight. After all that has happened in the first eight months of the Trump presidency, and particularly after his shout-out to white supremacists, what does not carry weight are arguments that Americans should still want the president to succeed. The Wall Street Journal’s admonition to readers on August 18th that they should not “root for a presidency’s disintegration” is wrong. The sooner the Trump presidency disintegrates, the better, and the best argument in favor of good people sticking around is that they can accelerate the disintegration and manage it cleanly.
The problem for the decent senior officials is this: Even if they stay in for these best of motives, thinking and acting like the patriots they undoubtedly are, they will suffer not merely reputational loss, but a kind of psychic hazard that is hard for the rest of us to imagine. If John Kelly were in a post-military business career, he would not have endured a chairman of the board he was serving on speaking the way Trump did at that press conference. Kelly would have walked off stage and resigned within the hour. Instead, he had to stand there, impassively pained. Gary Cohn is a Jewish philanthropist: He paid a price, not in emotional discomfort but in his integrity, in staying silent while the president made excuses for anti-Semites shouting slogans that hark back to Hitler’s brown shirts.
One’s country can ask those who volunteer to serve it in uniform to put their lives on the line. In extremis, it can demand it of any citizen conscripted into its service. But the hazards of battle do not require surrendering your soul: just the reverse, risking it all can mean reaffirming your highest values. The country does not, however, have the right to ask you to sacrifice your moral core, what makes you who you are. It has no right to ask a Mattis, a Kelly, or a McMaster, to turn into a silent partner in odious speech or reprehensible deeds, to acquiesce in a contemptible code alien to their nature and education.
These are undoubtedly questions that keep some, probably most, possibly all of these senior officials awake at night. The rest of us are not in a position to judge them; nor is it necessary that we pity, encourage, or warn them. But no one should doubt that if they continue to serve, they may very well rescue their country at a dire moment, and that the price for doing so may be nothing less than a piece of their souls.