Public servants in national security have managed an uncomfortable balancing act since President Trump took office. They were labeled adversaries by members of Trump’s inner circle from the beginning. Opponents of the new administration, meanwhile, hoped the “deep state” would form a silent resistance inside the government to check the president’s authority. Predecessors flooded them with advice about how to serve, how to subvert, how to resign.
Now that Trump has been in office for a year and a half, the hypotheticals are no longer so hypothetical. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly reportedly has told colleagues that working for “an idiot” is “the worst job I’ve ever had.” A senior adviser, according to Bob Woodward’s new book, has snatched documents off Trump’s desk to prevent him from signing things the aide disagreed with. Long-admired public servants have broken their political silence to call the president an embarrassment and a threat to free speech , shattering norms that previously distinguished the national security community. A senior administration official has even written an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times claiming there’s a “quiet resistance” working from within to foil Trump. I hear from friends and former colleagues still at the Pentagon, the State Department and other executive offices in career and military positions who wonder if they should remain. Can anyone, in good conscience, work for the United States government right now?
Yes. And the rest of us should stop insisting otherwise. The most profound form of protest against the Trump administration may be for these men and women to serve, professionally. A bureaucracy — or military — that openly fights the White House plays into Trumpists’ wildest fantasies. And to an administration sledgehammering its own institutions, a mass exit of men and women of principle and patriotism would be a gift, not an act of resistance. If they left, they would rob the government of irreplaceable knowledge; if they became dedicated adversaries of the president, they would further erode trust in civil servants’ ability to execute their duties faithfully. We placed an enormous burden on the national security state by electing this president along with a Congress that checks him weakly, if at all. The least we can do now is not demand that public servants act as a moral proxy in our stead.
For the stubbornly apolitical national security cadre, this debate is faintly familiar but far beyond our comfort zone. Men and women in policy, intelligence and military roles have long argued among ourselves about how to respond to an unlawful order, a losing war, a too-convenient classification of information: Sometimes, you can play the hero; sometimes, you can stem the bleeding; sometimes, you can’t do anything but move on. After 10 years at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, I still struggle with how to account for the controversial and even tragic events that happened when I served, such as everything that followed U.S. military operations in Libya in 2011, or the chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government on civilians there in 2013. But usually, you can fit the nature of your discomfort into the four corners of a memo, armed with bulleted facts and argumentation to clear your conscience.
Today’s dilemma starts with the succinct lines of our oath of office and spins out into darker corners. “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
Who are enemies? Can I faithfully discharge the duties of my office if the president includes my peers and me in that category? By serving, do I enable the actions my mentors are condemning? Do constant pressures to resign, to chasten the president, to speak up in criticism constitute mental reservations? Help me, God.
Advice on how to serve patriotically in an administration that has never much liked you, sidelines you, harasses you and calls you an enemy generated a small cottage industry last year. The basic premise was that this choice is personal and complex. Refusing an illegal order is expected. But beyond that, one staffer’s willingness to defenestrate herself dramatically will differ from another’s ambitions. The outside experts gave four general forms of advice: First, you could serve ethically by continuing to do your job with professionalism, maintaining vital relationships with foreign counterparts and critical institutions, spending public funds responsibly and keeping America’s service members safe.
Second, you could object on principle, logging and sharing your analysis of risky ventures with decision-makers and using formal and informal dissent channels.
Third, you could shirk your duties strategically, removing yourself from any role or decision you find ethically objectionable.
Finally, you could engage in light resistance, such as extensive record-keeping, support for whistleblower protections or going to Congress or the press.
Above all, though, everyone insisted: Protect the institutions, unseen and usually unloved, that underwrite those moments when America chooses to be great.
All of these are appropriate. There is no template.
Many of these guides invoke a key question of self-examination as phrased by Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes: “Am I doing anything, or being asked to do anything, that violates the law or my conscience?” This is by no means a simple question. Now ensconced at a think tank, I can’t answer it for any civil servant who spoke the same oath I did. But I am growing afraid that too many outside government have no qualms about doing so for the public servants within.
To Trump’s many opponents, the allure of depicting the “deep state” as a savior or an ad hoc check on his power has been enormous, even if the Constitution reserves those roles for other branches of government, not for National Security Council desk officers or State Department diplomats. Today’s version of that temptation is hoping intelligence, military or career national security officials will cross profound professional barriers to resign dramatically, to pen a cri de coeur against the president in a major newspaper or to embrace the political world on cable news. It’s an almost sinfully delicious enjoyment, as though the shedding of long-standing norms makes the defense of democracy all the sweeter. More worth is given to the rebellion of the civil servant than ever was given her work.
For those quick to burn it all down for the sake of democracy, hold your torches. There is no good outcome if the civil service rises up against the president — nor if the people tasked with implementing Trump’s version of foreign policy simply walk away from their jobs. If we hope that an empowered deep state moves to stop the president’s excesses, how do we define when unelected civil servants should step in, and in what way? Such lines would be hard to draw in the chaos. And pitting the bureaucracy against the commander in chief is not a simple habit to unlearn. But what good would quitting do? Has there ever been a president who seemed less likely to be swayed by a resignation on principle? Either tactic would irrevocably weaken the institutions charged with the use and means of projection of force, with relief in crisis, and with strengthening the very norms we find under threat in our country.
Too much of the outrage against Trump forgets that there will be a world after him, one where the new president will need these institutions to be greater and stronger than they were before to repair the damage his term has wreaked. Resignations would be longer-lasting than the Trump administration. The national security bureaucracy would be difficult to reconstitute. Hiring processes are interminable; were I recruited now to my former position in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, for instance, it would be virtually impossible to hire me, since I’m not a veteran. Hiring freezes, dissolution of key entry programs (such as the Presidential Management Fellowship) at certain agencies and prohibitions on lateral transfers have sapped morale and cut off new blood for much of the national security bureaucracy — a team built on technical knowledge, challenges to groupthink and a willingness to work past 9 p.m. While working on a project interviewing current and former national security officials about the state of their field, I found that the top worry for every single one of them is human capital. The absence of senior mentors, the loss of decades of technical expertise and the exodus of knowledge of professional standards are already making themselves felt.
What can we do to help? Apply the same energized glee that greets excoriating resignation letters to reassuring national security civil servants that they will not be considered tainted if they continue to serve. Demand that institutions that are supposed to check the president — Congress, the judiciary, the news media — play that role, rather than shrugging it off on the men and women who signed up to protect the Constitution. Treat the national security bureaucracy as a strategic resource, not a political pawn, not an easy scapegoat, not a cost-cutting measure and not a barrier. And stand up as loudly and strenuously for Joe G12 and Lt. Jo as for John Brennan.
I don’t envy my peers in government. And I don’t blame those who made the difficult choice to resign. I blame myself — and I blame you, too — for not doing more to help them stay and wait for a president who will follow the same oath.
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