But Trump’s corruption still pulls at a distance. Clearly convinced that Trumpism is here to stay, Haley has publicly turned against other officials in the administration who saw the president as a dangerous fool. She recounts an hour-long meeting with then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who “confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country.” The conspirators (in Haley’s telling) considered it a life-and-death matter. “This was how high the stakes were, he and Kelly told me. We are doing the best we can do to save the country, they said. We need you to work with us and help us do it.”
Haley, by her own account, refused to help. “Instead of saying that to me, they should’ve been saying that to the president, not asking me to join them on their sidebar plan,” she now explains. “It should’ve been, ‘Go tell the president what your differences are, and quit if you don’t like what he’s doing.’ But to undermine a president is really a very dangerous thing.”
Here Haley is confusing two categories. If a Cabinet member has a policy objection of sufficient seriousness, he or she should take that concern to the president. If the president then chooses against their position — and if implementing the decision would amount to a violation of conscience — an official should resign. Staying in office to undermine, say, a law or war you disapprove of would be a disturbing arrogation of presidential authority.
But there is an equally important moral priority to consider: If you are a national security official working for a malignant, infantile, impulsive, authoritarian wannabe, you need to stay in your job as long as you can to mitigate whatever damage you can — before the mad king tires of your sanity and fires you.
This paradox is one tragic outcome of Trumpism. It is generally a bad and dangerous idea for appointed officials to put their judgment above an elected official’s. And yet it would have been irresponsible for Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson and others not to follow their own judgments in cases where an incompetent, delusional or corrupt president was threatening the national interest.
Consider the case of former White House counsel Donald McGahn. According to the Mueller report, McGahn complained to then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that Trump was trying to get him to “do crazy s--t.” McGahn (thankfully) told investigators he ignored presidential orders he took to be illegal.
Or consider a negative illustration. When it came to pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, the only morally mature adults in the room (and on the phone) were quite junior in rank. They expressed their concerns upward. But those above them — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — had learned the lesson about officials fired for an excess of conscience. They apparently looked the other way as a friendly country was squeezed for political reasons.
On the whole, I’m glad that responsible officials such as Kelly and Mattis stayed as long as they did to prevent damage to the country. But I also think they have a moral obligation to come out before the 2020 election and say what they know about Trump’s unfitness. If Biden is the nominee, they might even get together and endorse him. But, in any case, if they believe Trump is a danger to the national interest, they eventually have a duty to say something. Saving the country requires no less.
As for Haley, she has now signaled to Trump Republicans that she was not a part of the “deep state,” thus clearing away a barrier to ambition. All she had to do was to ignore her conscience, betray her colleagues and injure her country. A small price to pay for such a brilliant political future.