The political world reacted with appropriate astonishment to the amazing New York Times op-ed in which a senior Trump administration official, writing under the cloak of anonymity, excoriated the president for “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions” that are “detrimental to the health of our republic.” Supporters of President Trump indignantly harrumphed that the charges were a calumny. Opponents defended them as fair and accurate.
The only thing the two sides agreed on, it seems, is that the author, who has been dubbed Deep State Throat, is a coward. So said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And so said Rep. Ted Lieu (D.-Calif.), one of Trump’s most eloquent critics in Congress. This might be the only thing that Sanders and Lieu, in fact, agree upon.
I’m not so sure.
Of course, writing without revealing one’s name is hardly the most courageous act an administration official could take – but then neither were the actions of the original Deep Throat, the FBI’s Mark Felt, who spoke anonymously to Bob Woodward during Watergate. Just on Tuesday I argued, based on the revelations in Woodward’s latest tome, that it’s time to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove the president from office. It would be nice if Deep State Throat were part of such an effort. But the reality is, I’m not really sure what to do about Trump. No one is, because we are in uncharted waters.
Even before the submission of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, we are arguably in a more perilous position than we were in during the last days of President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s aides recognized that he was amoral and possibly deranged, and they plotted to prevent him from abusing his powers. But at least no one could doubt that Nixon had the intellectual capacity to be president. Not so with Trump.
Those around him have concluded – as made clear not only by Woodward and Deep State Throat but also by chroniclers as disparate as Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault Newman — that Trump is both morally and intellectually unfit for the job. His own aides have reportedly called Trump a “liar” (lawyer John Dowd), a “moron” (then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), an “idiot” and “unhinged” (White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly) and “dumb” (then-economic adviser Gary Cohn), and have likened him to a “fifth- or sixth-grader” (Defense Secretary Jim Mattis). Trump’s unhinged reaction to the anonymous op-ed — he thinks it’s “TREASON” to criticize him — only confirms those withering judgments.
In a parliamentary system, getting rid of such a terrible leader would be relatively easy: Simply call a vote of confidence in Parliament or within the party caucus. But in our presidential system it’s not so easy. Impeachment requires a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. Removal via the 25th Amendment, if it is challenged by the president, requires two-thirds of both house. Given how craven Republicans are toward a president who still commands the loyalty of their base, if no one else, it is impossible to imagine getting the votes from the current Congress that would be necessary to remove Trump.
So what are well-meaning public officials supposed to do? Intelligent and honorable people can and do disagree.
After Trump’s disastrous performance in Helsinki, the Post’s deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus wrote: “Everyone who works for President Trump: Quit now. Save your souls. Save your honor, such as it is. Save your reputation, such as it remains. … Really, administration officials, what good are you doing, for yourselves or your country, by sticking around for this?” I thought she made a great case.
But then editorial page editor Fred Hiatt replied in an article titled “Please, Dan Coats. Don’t Resign.” His argument: “Things could get worse still. A lot worse. And that argues for the ‘adults’ staying as long as they can manage to do so.” I thought he also made a great point.
I considered weighing in with an article of my own, but I couldn’t figure out which side was more compelling. I still can’t. And, I suspect, well-meaning administration officials face the same dilemma.
Trump’s aides can plausibly tell themselves that they are serving the republic by trying to rein in the president’s reckless impulses even if they don’t always succeed. As Woodward details, those officials have prevented a lot of mischief — from planning a military strike against North Korea to an assassination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But administration critics can also plausibly claim that disgruntled insiders could have a bigger impact by going public, trying to invoke the 25th Amendment, arguing for impeachment or simply advocating a vote for Democrats in November.
The Times op-ed writer apparently is trying to have it both ways by speaking out publicly while still trying to stymie the president in private. Perhaps that’s not a tenable approach, but I am willing to cut some slack to anyone in a position of power who is working to save America from the most reckless, corrupt and unqualified president in our history. We don’t know how best to resist this demagogue, so a little humility is in order. The only people who should come in for withering scorn are all the Republicans in Washington who are cynically acting as Trump’s enablers even though they understand just how dangerous and destructive he is.