Last month, President Trump lost his bid for reelection. Hundreds of his appointees will soon be leaving the government, including some who didn’t vote for him in 2016 or 2020. What are you to make of the Trump skeptics who joined the administration thinking they could temper his worst instincts?
These aren’t members of the so-called deep state who supposedly sabotage elected officials by secretly thwarting their policy goals. This might be called “the shallow state” — people who accepted jobs in the Trump administration despite their profound concerns about the president. We believed that good and competent people should work in our government and that conservatism’s traditional goals — individual liberty and limited government — could still thrive in a Trump administration.
I believed that in 2017. There is always a tendency to see oneself as a white knight — the only person able to stop bad things from happening. But too many of us only imagined we were saving the country, when in reality we were just nonfactors. And even for those who prevented real harm, we only masked the absurdity of the Trump administration from voters.
As I walked out of the Oval Office in February 2017, I knew I was working for a president who wasn’t well versed in our Constitution or the work of the Justice Department. But I told myself it was my duty to serve.
Chiseled into the Justice Department’s headquarters are these words: “Where law ends, tyranny begins.” Less than a week after I was hired, the president went to war with my boss, Attorney General Sessions, because he refused to end an investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign. The barrage of media questions and White House attacks around that investigation would consume nearly all my time for 18 months.
President Trump did not demonstrate an interest in the law, or the regulations meant to ensure its fair administration. He tweeted that the department should not have prosecuted Republican congressmen because they belonged to his political party. He shared a meme on Twitter showing then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein behind bars because Trump wanted to shut down the probe that he believed was hurting him politically.
The question for President Trump was not what he could do for the Justice Department, but what the Justice Department could do for him.
And those who stood in his way became targets. At least four times, someone from the White House told department officials to fire me. The first time, the White House press secretary tried to replace me with a conservative commentator who would go on to work for a “news organization” funded and controlled by the Russian government. Later, an assistant to the president called to reprimand me for releasing a statement from the attorney general reaffirming that the department would not be “improperly influenced by political considerations.”
“My boss is the president of the United States, and he can say or tweet whatever he wants,” the senior White House staffer yelled.
“Yes, that’s true,” I replied. “And my guy is the attorney general, and if your boss doesn’t like the statement, he can fire us.”
I did not quit — though maybe I should have. It’s not as though there was any doubt about how things would end.
The day after the president fired Sessions, I was removed from my job. Some of the things that we had told ourselves we were staying to prevent, such as the firing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, didn’t happen even after we left. Other disasters weren’t prevented.
More than a year later, I was told that White House officials — in an effort to root out anyone not seen as sufficiently loyal to the president — interviewed Justice Department appointees and asked whether “there were any more Sarah Isgurs in the department.” There are, and they made the last four years less painful than they otherwise would have been.
Yes, there were plenty of Trump appointees who were incompetent and worse. But remember that there were a number of political appointees at Justice who knew about the investigation into Hunter Biden before the election and told no one. They protected the special counsel’s investigation and refused to say that there was election fraud where there was none. They prosecuted allies of the president, such as his campaign chairman Paul Manafort, national security adviser Michael Flynn, former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
These weren’t members of some secret cabal bent on thwarting the president behind his back. They were people who upheld their oath to the Constitution to his face.
Just before the election, Jared Kushner said, “In the beginning, 20 percent of the people we had thought Trump was saving the world, and 80 percent thought they were saving the world from Trump. Now, I think we have the inverse.”
Kushner’s proportions were off, but his point was spot on. Even in its closing days, Trump’s presidency was propped up by the well-intentioned.
We told ourselves that, by going in, we were preventing greater harm to the country. But we obscured the reality of a Trump presidency from the public. We gave voters a false sense of what kind of president Trump was. And now, more than 74 million people have voted to reelect a president who refuses to honor our most basic of values — the transfer of power based on the will of the American electorate.
It’s hard to imagine a greater harm.