President Trump, recognizing the inevitable, has disbanded his business advisory councils to preempt the tidal wave of resignations that was in the offing. Given my long-standing views about chief executives lending legitimacy to the Trump administration, I was delighted that a group of CEOs forced this step.
It is a stunning development with more to come. Who could have imagined business leaders would be actively stepping away from a Republican president whose economic program is centered on business tax cuts and regulatory relief? Or that an incoming president could take his popularity down to 34 percent within seven months? Considering polling data, legislative relations and connections (or lack thereof) to elites, I think it is safe to say Trump is more bereft of support than any president since Richard Nixon in the months before his resignation.
This brings two issues to mind.
First, what about those who serve in the administration? If I worked for a president who behaved like this one, I would surely resign. Disregard for my policy concerns would be one reason. The purpose of Tuesday’s news conference was to highlight initiatives to streamline infrastructure renewal — all lost, as they so often are with Trump. Incivility, and the mocking of political opponents and colleagues like chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon would be enough to get me to go. And I would not, in any environment, work for someone who, after reflection and advice, gave quarter to racism and anti-Semitism in the way the president did on Tuesday.
If I couldn’t see these points or convinced myself that the republic depended on my restraining influence, my family would be in my face until I resigned. My children would visit their embarrassment on me with increasing vehemence and share the disgust of their generation with my boss. Family pressure can matter. I have often heard that estranged children were an important source of pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson's staff to stop supporting the president’s Vietnam War. We need some of that now from the families and friends of those enabling Trump’s presidency.
I am surprised that there have not been more resignations yet. But as the CEOs example suggests, things sometimes take longer to happen than you think they should and then happen faster than you thought they could. With no inside knowledge, I’d guess the dam will break soon, and we will see a group of key aides and officials come back from August and announce they have had enough.
To be fair, I think key national security officials who may see themselves as preventing war through their restraining influence have a more complex moral calculus than those with political, legislative, communications or economic roles. Those in the latter group would best serve their country and their futures by resigning. Why would anyone want to be former White House press secretary Ron Ziegler to Trump’s Nixon?
Second, all of this points up a challenge in our constitutional system. What happens when a democratically elected president is or becomes dangerous and incompetent but has not committed a “high crime or misdemeanor” and is not medically unfit to serve? Any corporate board would have removed a CEO as erratic as Trump before now. A Cabinet member far out of bounds would be removed by the president. In a parliamentary system, a head of government performing like Trump would be removed by members of their own party — as Margaret Thatcher was with much less provocation — or would lose a vote of no confidence. In an ordered authoritarian state like China, the Central Committee would act. American democracy stands out for lacking a rapid correction mechanism for egregious inability to properly function as president.
On the evidence of the press, investigators are closing in on the president so there may be pressure on that front. But this is far from certain and will take time.
But in the meantime, those surrounding Trump would best to demonstrate to him the need to reset or resign by following the CEOs’ lead — withdrawing their cooperation and no longer lending their legitimacy to his disastrous presidency.