The “deep state” exists after all. But it turns out that deep state is not made up of the permanent bureaucracy, shadowy intelligence officials, or even Obama administration holdovers; rather it is made up of President Trump’s own senior appointees.
In a New York Times op-ed, an unnamed “senior official in the Trump administration” admits that he and others “in and around the White House” are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda” and thwart “Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” The author declares that he and his co-conspirators are being “unsung heroes” fighting on the inside to “preserve our democratic institutions.” In fact, they are doing precisely the opposite.
President Trump asked on Twitter whether the writer had committed “TREASON?” No, he (or she) has not. But the writer and the other members of this “quiet resistance within the administration” have betrayed the solemn oath they took when they raised their right hands and pledged to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution vests executive power in the president, not “senior officials.” Any authority these appointees have comes from the president, at whose pleasure they serve. For an unelected appointee to hide documents or refuse to carry out the lawful orders of the elected president is not noble. It is not patriotic. It is an assault on democracy.
If you are a presidential appointee who strongly disagrees with something the president is about to do, you have a moral obligation to try to convince the president that he is wrong. If you can’t do so, and the matter is sufficiently serious, then you have an obligation to resign – and explain to the American people why you did so. But there is no constitutional option of staying on the job and pretending to be a loyal adviser, while secretly undermining the president by failing to carry out his decisions – no matter how bad you think those decisions are.
Yet, according to the author, that is precisely what he (or she) and many senior officials are doing. And the conduct the author describes matches named senior administration officials’ actions described in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear.” According to Woodward, then-economic adviser Gary Cohn “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” to avoid formally withdrawing from a U.S-South Korea trade agreement – and later bragged to a colleague that the president never even realized it was missing. Woodward further reports that Cohn did the same with a document to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, telling then-staff secretary Rob Porter “I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk.”
It would be a horrible decision to withdraw from those trade agreements. And it would be perfectly legitimate to campaign internally to dissuade the president from doing so. But for the head of the National Economic Council to conspire with the White House staff secretary to hide documents from the president is rank insubordination. No one elected the economic adviser or the staff secretary. They elected Donald Trump.
It is important that good people serve in the administration and try their best to persuade the president to make good decisions and dissuade him from bad ones. But when you go from advising to subverting the president, you cross a moral and constitutional line. You are no longer defending democracy; you are subverting it. And to boast about your duplicitous behavior in the media is shameful.
In our system of checks and balances, there are a number of options at the disposal of officials concerned about the president’s fitness for office. If the president is as unstable as the writer suggests, and if many within the administration share that view, then a mass resignation would be appropriate. That could certainly make an impact on the midterm elections and flip control of the House and Senate to the Democrats, providing a check on the president’s power. If Trump is truly incompetent, then members of the Cabinet can agree to notify Congress that they do not believe the president can carry out his duties under the 25th Amendment. If he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, Congress can impeach him. But seeking to thwart the president from within by extra-constitutional means is un-American.
There is no shame in not serving a president you don’t respect. Many conservatives have made that decision. But if you feel you can’t serve the president honorably, then there is only one honorable thing to do: Don’t serve at all.
Marc A. Thiessen is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter, @marcthiessen.