Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did more than rebuke President Trump when he submitted his letter of resignation on Thursday afternoon. By the clarity of his words, he raised the bar on every official in government, especially Republicans in Congress.
For two years, Republican elected officials have sought to compartmentalize their relationships with the president. They could criticize him for his over-the-top tweets or recoil at his erratic behavior, then return to business as usual in pursuit of a tax bill or fewer regulations or more judicial nominations.
Mattis did what none of his former colleagues dared to do when they departed the Trump administration: He resigned in principle, his differences with the president stated explicitly, in a way that was designed to draw attention. He left behind a question that others in power must consider as they weigh this moment in the country’s history: Do they believe in the values Mattis espoused in his letter or do they believe in those pursued by the president?
Mattis’s words and what they imply fall most directly on Republicans and they leave little middle ground. If GOP senators agree with him, what are they prepared to do about it? So far they have ducked in holding the president accountable. Even after losing 40 seats and control of the House in the midterm elections, Republicans continue to act as if nothing much has changed, as the debacle of the government shutdown suggests.
There are obvious risks in stepping forward, but high-stakes moments demand the best of leaders, not the least.
The advisers around the president who were once seen as steadying influences have melted away one by one. Trump never got on with Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state. Since leaving, the former Exxon chief executive has shown that he holds the president in low regard. Relations were often tense between Trump and his second national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, also a retired general, departs at the end of the year, leaving on bad terms with the commander in chief.
The response to Mattis’s resignation was telling. From allies of the administration in Congress to allies in foreign capitals, the reaction was not just one of shock but also one of alarm, as if a last line of defense had broken down, leaving a beleaguered president to act even more freely on his impulses and in reaction to perceived provocations, criticism or signs of disrespect.
Events will push the Mattis resignation to the sidelines of the news. The government shutdown drama, the latest example of the chaos set off by the president, already has begun to do that. But the power of Mattis’s words transcend individual controversies or arguments of this or that policy. It prompts larger questions about the state of the country under the president at a time when his leadership has rattled people and markets.
There’s no longer any escaping from the reality of what the past two years have produced: a president who is facing multiple investigations, by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and by others; a president who has further divided an already divided country; a president who has not sought in any serious way to reach beyond his base; a president whose policies have left allies overseas worried about the absence of U.S. leadership. The country is heading into a year in which many of these could come to a head and at a time when the House will be in Democratic hands.
The question now, more urgent as a result of what Mattis said, is whether Republicans in positions of responsibility try to continue as if these are normal times or whether they step forward, assess things smartly and exert the kind of leadership they feel is in the best interests of the country.
The effect of what Mattis said in his letter is to puncture the belief that there can be an indefinite continuation of a situation in which the president moves in one direction while others in his government follow a more traditional course and quietly seek to reassure everyone that things are fine. Mattis suggests that the answer is no, that this tension is not sustainable.
The president ran and won on a platform of “America First.” All presidents deserve a team of advisers who reflect their priorities, as Mattis stated in his letter. A president also needs advisers who can tell him when they disagree. The country needs a president who listens to those advisers and makes decisions after robust discussion and careful thought and whose mind can be changed by the weight of evidence. The country expects a president to fully explain the reasons behind his actions, not by tweets or short videos on the White House lawn. The country deserves a president who cares about the truth.
These are issues that should be on the minds of Republicans, many of whom have private qualms about the president. Even if they conclude that they must move to constrain him, which is far from assured, they will quickly recognize there are no easy answers about what they can do to be effective. They also know that any Republican who opposes the president will pay a price, given his tight grip on the GOP and its base.
Some Republicans have spoken out consistently. Retiring Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) are the most prominent. Over time, their voices have lost potency, in part because they have been battered and belittled by the president and because they’ve been unable to get others to join them. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is mulling a 2020 challenge to the president in one form or another, though he too has yet to prove he can take his fight beyond something that is mostly rhetorical.
One sign of the exasperation with the president was the statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about Mattis’s resignation. Reaffirming his support for the postwar alliances this country helped to construct and insistent that leaders remain “clear-eyed” about threats from foes such as Russia, he said he was “particularly distressed” that Mattis was resigning over differences with the president.
McConnell has rarely quarreled publicly with the president. His statement highlighted the level of apprehension the defense secretary’s departure has triggered. That the majority leader did not go further, to put the moment into the larger context of the potential damage of an unrestrained president, was a reminder of the box in which Republicans have put themselves by their overall silence.
Another illustration of the reluctance of Republican officials to step into breach came in retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s farewell speech last week. Ryan (Wis.) once again decried the state of politics, which even before Trump was polarized and broken. Yet he never mentioned by name a president who has made things worse. For two years, Ryan has walked this path and it has taken a toll on his reputation and probably his legacy.
As the departures from the administration count up, expectations of an effective counterbalance inside the executive branch have diminished. Instead, that responsibility will fall to others in the Republican Party. Mattis has effectively asked everyone to step up and make their positions clear, to defend what they believe in and to challenge what they don’t.