On Wednesday, I got into interesting conversations with some foreign-policy cognoscenti about the this year’s election. One of them asked me point-blank: If Donald Trump were elected president, and then his White House asked me to serve in some capacity in his administration, would I say yes?

Now, given my rather resolute #NeverTrump position, you would think that it would be easy to say no. But it’s a more complicated question than you would think, for two reasons. First, this may sound corny, but members of the foreign-policy community think in the ethic of public service. This means that, even if a leader you disagree with asks you to serve, you don’t say no when the president of the United States makes the request. It’s an honor to serve your country, and being asked to do so is a powerful ask.

Second, there are genuine concerns that a President Trump would have great difficulty staffing the foreign-policy apparatus. As Politico’s Michel Hirsh notes:

Some national-security experts say Trump, if elected, may have a lot of trouble filling top posts in his administration with qualified Republican officials. “I don’t know any prominent national security person who’s signed up with Trump since he started,” says Eliot Cohen, who served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s the same cast of oddballs and has-beens and kooks he’s had before.” Earlier this year Cohen co-authored a letter signed by 121 GOP national-security elites, saying Trump’s foreign policy “is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.” Cohen says the number of defectors has only grown since then. “A week doesn’t go by without more people wanting to sign on.”
Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades, seconds that viewpoint. “I served in every administration from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, including all the Republican ones. I know tons of people at senior levels. I don’t know a single person who is working for him and is supporting him. There is deep, deep anguish among a lot of senior Republicans. Many are silently rooting for Hillary and will quietly vote for her,” says Burns, who is now advising the Democratic candidate. “This is not a reversal by the party,” he says, “but by one person, Trump.”

If quality people don’t agree to serve, that opens the door for the unqualified yes-men of the world, which would make things even worse. So a request to serve your country, with the knowledge that someone worse than you would be picked if you said no, is a pretty powerful pull.

But still, my answer would be no. The simple fact is that Trump poses unique dangers. It’s not just that he’s sounding increasingly nuts or that he invited a foreign country to commit espionage to undercut his political rival or that his foreign policy pronouncements border on loathsome (though it is those things).

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. An underappreciated aspect of Trump’s interview with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times last week was this exchange:

HABERMAN: You had meetings in the last couple months with James Baker and Henry Kissinger. Did they in any way change your views?

Indeed, comparing that interview with the one Trump did with them four months ago demonstrates absolutely zero learning has taken place.

If Trump will not listen to Baker or Kissinger, both of whom were secretaries of state, whether his mind can’t be changed by either of those guys, then I have no chance of persuading him not to do something stupid. Which means my entry into public service would be little more than a legitimizing act for a Trump administration.


Benjamin Wittes got at this question last week for Lawfare. He raised an important distinction between civil-service bureaucrats and political appointees. Wittes recommended that the former continue to serve in a Trump administration, because there are things the government has to do, and it preserves the option of resigning if Trump ever asked them to do something illegal or immoral. But Wittes noted that when it comes to political appointees, the situation is different:

Given what Trump has said about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Muslims, for example, it seems to me flatly improper for any lawyer to agree to head the department’s Civil Rights Division, Criminal Division, or National Security Division — all of which are institutionally duty-bound to protect people’s constitutional rights. Given what he has said about the federal judge who sits on his own civil case, I would question the ethics of anyone who agreed to head the Civil Division in a Trump administration. It follows that it is also ethically problematic for a lawyer to agree to supervise those divisions as Associate Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, or Attorney General — at least without Trump’s backing off of his own promises of unlawful behavior. Similarly, I would question the ethics of anyone who would agree to serve as Secretary of Defense for a man who openly promises war crimes.
The broad proposition here is that when a candidate has made clear that he does not respect constitutional or legal norms and would direct the government to violate them, it is not appropriate to sign up to serve in a position responsible for delivering on those promised violations.

So, if there ever is a Trump administration, my plan will be to:

  1. Just say no to any request to serve in his administration.
  2. Buy gold.
  3. Move to New Zealand.