President Trump at the White House with, among others, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Editor at large

There was a time, in the early days of the administration, when a decent, patriotic person could make a case for serving this president. If all the competent people refused, the government would be run by incompetents. Better to surround President Trump with “adults” than to leave him to his own devices. Optimists argued that Trump had no beliefs and could be molded like a piece of unformed clay. Pessimists argued that even if he could not be changed, someone had to save us from his most dangerous errors. And there was the matter of duty. Like it or not, Trump was the elected president, and when the president calls, you have a duty to serve.

Those who went into the administration for all these reasons may want to start asking themselves how all this is working out. On balance, are they preventing bad decisions more than they are enabling them? Do they save the administration from errors more than they help excuse and deny them? These dilemmas arise in every administration, of course, because all presidents commit errors, make bad decisions and yet demand a loyal, stout defense, and even a degree of dissembling, from those who serve them. Nor are we naive: People like their jobs, like the power and rarely resign on mere principle.

This situation is different, however. Many of those who joined the administration opposed Trump during the campaign, not only because they disagreed with his policies but also because they thought he was unfit for the office. This was especially so for those involved with national security. Whether they said it publicly or only among friends, they feared that because of his temperament and his ignorance of world affairs, and because his view of the United States’ purpose was diametrically opposed to theirs, Trump would make a poor if not disastrous president and commander in chief. When they agreed to work for him, they did not pretend that their view had changed. They simply believed that the country would be better served with them in than with them out.

(Victoria Walker,Jayne Orenstein,Dalton Bennett,Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

One can argue that it was worth the experiment, but does there ever come a point when the experiment can be declared a failure? So far, in less than four months, Trump has fired an FBI director who was leading an investigation of his campaign, passed highly classified information to Russian officials, raised doubts about the United States’ treaty commitments and threatened to charge allies for their defense, called the media an enemy of the people, and attacked the courts. Now he has bumbled his way into the naming of a special prosecutor. And yet those who joined the administration to save the country still hope that they can make a difference. No doubt they believe that for all the bad things Trump has done, it could still be worse and that if they leave, it will be worse.

Maybe so, but this seems more like wishful thinking than clearheaded analysis. The odds are much better that, whether they stay or go, things are going to get worse. Trump is exactly what they thought he would be, and for all the efforts to mold him into something else, his core continually resists and obtrudes. The “adults” have been more window dressing than guardrails. For every bit of good the adults do, Trump undoes it with a tweet. The adults go off and reassure European allies that Trump really does support NATO, and then he expresses support for Marine Le Pen, whose election in France would have destroyed NATO. The adults carefully tee him up to challenge North Korea, and then he threatens to rip up the five-year-old trade deal with South Korea and insists that Seoul pay for a missile defense shield, in violation of an existing pact. The adults provide him a legal and plausible rationale for firing the FBI director, only to be made to look like fools when he suggests that the real reason was the Russia investigation.

There’s little reason to hope that this is the end of it, that these four months have been a shake-out period, a rough start before the president finds his footing. The errors and bad decisions are too much a product of Trump’s character and personality. His basic policies are too much like what he campaigned on. The mistakes will likely continue, therefore, with ever direr consequences. At what point will those who joined the administration to save the country decide that they are not able to save it? Until now, their principal response to the president’s bad decisions has been to help him carry them out, to be silent, or to explain and justify them after the fact. At worst they have been enablers. At best they have allowed their reputations for integrity, their bemedaled uniforms, their intellectual pedigrees to be used as glittering props, the false facades of a Potemkin presidency.

It’s hard for anyone on the outside to judge exactly when the time is right for decent, honorable people to call it quits. Only they can assess when the good they do no longer outweighs the bad they cannot prevent and in which they inevitably become complicit. But they do need to face the question. The danger of all the rationales for service is that they can justify remaining in office forever, no matter what Trump does. A duty to serve? Yes. But on some very rare occasions, there is also a duty to oppose.