Former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified at the House impeachment inquiry Tuesday, and it was an interesting high-wire act. In his opening statement, Volker had to acknowledge his naivete on certain matters directly related to his Ukraine portfolio, like why President Trump was so fixated on investigating Burisma. As he put it: “I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, Burisma, as equivalent to investigating former vice president Biden. … In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”

Despite his proclaimed lack of knowledge at the time, Volker knew something was rotten in U.S. policy toward Ukraine. In his testimony, he explained that he thought he could reconcile official U.S. policy on Ukraine with whatever Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani was doing: “What I was trying to do in working with the Ukrainians was to thread a needle.”

This analogy captured the critical attention of some commentators. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer characterized it as an “incredible metaphor for the entire conservative establishment’s relationship to the rise of Donald Trump—we know what this horrible thing is, but maybe we can make it another thing that isn’t so horrible—and of course they can’t.”

The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser went even further in her Tuesday column, noting that “had Volker succeeded, there would not be an impeachment proceeding against Trump in the House of Representatives.” She further argued that Volker’s failure to thread that needle is emblematic of the abject failure of the “adults in the room” to wrangle Trump’s worst impulses into something less destructive:

The myth of the “adults in the room” has persisted since the beginning of the Administration, but it has never been accurate. There is no managing Donald Trump, no way to preserve one’s integrity while doing what is necessary to remain powerful in his orbit. Look at what happened to Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis and John Kelly. Trump is a government of one. He himself has said so repeatedly. Early in his Administration, under criticism for leaving key posts open at the State Department, Trump said that, when it comes to foreign policy, “I am the only one that matters.” At the time, less than a year into his presidency, perhaps that could have been dismissed as hyperbole. Certainly, it would have been surprising to hear members of Congress publicly agreeing that the entire rest of the government — themselves and their own branch included — was irrelevant. Yet that is more or less where the impeachment process has ended up.
Several of the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry found that out, to their dismay. Volker is perhaps the clearest example of this. Volker thought that he could handle the problem of Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine by engaging with the source of the “negative information flow”—Giuliani. Others in the Administration considered this folly and warned him that it was not feasible to “thread the needle,” as Volker termed it in his testimony. Yet he tried, awkwardly insisting that he had no idea that Trump actually wanted Zelensky to investigate Biden, as opposed to more generic “corruption” in Ukraine. Volker said that he had been out of the loop on the key conversations that would have revealed that motive. When he met Giuliani at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for breakfast, in July, Volker acknowledged that Giuliani did bring up Biden and that Volker tried to talk him out of it. It did not work.

The implicit query in this critique: What were these people thinking when they agreed to serve Trump? Didn’t they realize this would be the ultimate outcome?

In some ways, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts agrees with Glasser. Heck, I was explicit about this back in the summer of 2016:

It boils down to two factors particular to Trump. First, I have yet to see evidence that he is interested in anything beyond himself. He has no higher purpose or ideal that interests him. There is not a lot that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) or Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) have in common, but all of them believe in something larger than themselves, and that higher sense of purpose helps to shape that worldview. If any of them asked me to serve, I would at least have to consider it seriously. Trump has demonstrated nothing remotely like that during this campaign.
More importantly, advising Trump on policy would be a fruitless task, because Trump does not seem to listen to anyone.

That column held up pretty well, but in defense of folks like Volker and Fiona Hill, there were arguments out there in late 2016 and early 2017 that maybe threading this needle would be challenging but not impossible. Even as late as September 2018, the infamous anonymous New York Times op-ed declared: “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t. The result is a two-track presidency.”

Trump’s lack of expertise in foreign affairs meant there were entire swaths of issues where a competent policymaker could do good for the United States without running afoul of the president. Indeed, we see this in reporting by my Washington Post colleague Josh Dawsey, who noted that until Trump got interested in quid pro quos with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the officials running Ukraine policy had few presidential constraints on their actions. Dawsey quotes from a September interview with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on this point regarding former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch: “My sense was she was not operating within the daily oversight of the State Department, of Foggy Bottom. She had discretion. Folks in D.C. weren’t paying attention. For much of the past two years, the Trump administration couldn’t care less about Ukraine.”

Volker and Hill signed onto their jobs in early 2017, so one can allow that they went into their roles with the belief that they could be the “adults in the room.” Of course, hubris and the desire to stay in policymaking shape mattered, as well.

Given that even the anonymous author now acknowledges the “adults in the room” hypothesis has been falsified, what happens now? Incredibly, there might still be an argument that service is justified. Trump’s foreign policy has metastasized from bad to worse in recent months. Fighting the good fight, even while losing, might be the useful Dunkirk option in response to the Toddler in Chief — saving what can be saved in the face of overwhelming force. A wholesale exodus of policymakers would make the situation worse, not better.

The key difference now is that anyone still serving, or considering serving, needs to be completely prepared to resign or be fired. Rear Adm. Collin Green, the commander of the Navy’s SEAL force, for example, might be setting the template for what is to come. According to the New York Times’s Dave Philipps, despite Trump’s pardon of SEAL members in war crimes cases, Green will strip the convicted chief petty officer of his membership in the commando unit, which demonstrates the depth of the military’s opposition to Trump’s interference in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

This is exactly the kind of public defiance that will enrage Trump and lead to a reversal of these orders and punitive action against Green. He seems prepared to shoulder that burden.

That is the wager that any honorable person serving in this administration needs to be prepared to make.