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The dilemma of serving in a Trump administration

There are good reasons for a #NeverTrump wonk to serve in a Trump administration. There are good reasons not to as well.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) at the Capitol on Nov. 10. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
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As the reality of an incoming Trump administration settles in, there have been some disturbing reports about the incoming team’s lack of preparation. I alluded to some of them last week, and that was before Trump shuffled up his transition team. Disturbing anecdotes are also making their way into the press, like this one from the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender and Carol Lee:

Mr. Trump’s victory surprised even his own top advisers, who, before Tuesday, were unable to focus the New York businessman on the 73 days between the election and inauguration, a senior aide said. They said Mr. Trump didn’t want to jinx himself by planning the transition before he had actually won.
During their private White House meeting on Thursday, Mr. Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope, said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.
After meeting with Mr. Trump, the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do, people familiar with the matter said.

The Los Angeles Times version of this story had the same anecdote but suggested the only dimwitted Trump aide was son-in-law Jared Kushner. And Obama staffers were clearly the source of this leak, so there may be some shading going on here. Nonetheless, you get the point: This is not a team that is ready to govern just yet.

In many ways, this highlights the Trump team’s need for, you know, people who know stuff about government. Trump himself admitted as much to Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” when asked about why he was leaning so much on Washington insiders for his transition team.

The Post’s Robert Costa and Paul Farhi discuss the appointments by Donald Trump of Stephen K. Bannon and Reince Priebus to top White House positions. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: STF/The Washington Post)

The gap between Trump’s existing team and the daunting demands placed on any president have given rise to columns urging GOP foreign policy folk to set aside their objections to the president-elect and serve. #NeverTrump leader Eliot Cohen made this point in the American Interest. On Saturday, Ross Douthat went even further, arguing that “there is a moral responsibility to serve.” He elaborated:

For the next four years, the most important check on what we’ve seen of Trump’s worst impulses — his hair-trigger temper, his rampant insecurity, his personal cruelty — won’t come from Congress or the courts or the opposition party. It will come from the people charged with executing the basic responsibilities of government within his administration.
This is particularly true in foreign policy, where presidential power has its fewest limits — where the chief executive can start wars with near-impunity, deal out death from the skies, rattle the global economy with an executive order, and decide with barely anyone else’s input to launch a nuclear weapon. In foreign policy, too, the choices that presidential appointees have to make on their own, in diplomatic and military contexts, can have life-or-death consequences very quickly. So to the extent that Trump’s approach to governance threatens world peace, that threat can be mitigated by appointees with experience and knowledge, and magnified if their posts are filled by hacks and sycophants instead.

This is a powerful argument. Some of the finest examples of public service are the unheralded moments, the times when a staffer shoots down a really, really stupid idea that powerful hacks are advocating. It’s not the glamorous part of any policy portfolio, but it is vital to avoid worst-case national security scenarios.

There are other valid arguments for GOP foreign policy folk to serve. There is such a thing as policymaking shape, and if qualified Republicans abstain from serving now their skills might atrophy too much to be of any use when a less objectionable Republican comes along. Also, there really is such a thing as a belief in public service among wonks.

Cue the obligatory West Wing clip!

If Republicans can serve in Democrats’ administrations and vice versa, surely some GOP foreign policy wonks can swallow their #NeverTrump affinities and serve in a GOP administration?

And here we get to the moment when one has to point out that life is not as simple as an Aaron Sorkin script.

I offered up some of these reasons this past July. Regardless of one’s personal preferences, agreeing to serve in a Trump administration will also be a legitimizing act for the administration’s foreign policy. It legitimates Trump’s decision to appoint Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon as his chief strategist. Agreeing to serve in this administration means that, on some level, you are copacetic with serving for that kind of individual.

We don’t know who Trump will pick for his foreign policy and national security team, but we already know two things. First, loyalty is going to count for a lot. Second, Trump’s most loyal aides do not inspire much confidence as policymakers.

Cohen and others suggest that one should agree to serve with the full knowledge that resignation must be a live option. That’s asking a lot from people, however. Getting vetted by the FBI or confirmed by the Senate is not easy. Heck, properly filling out an SF-86 is not easy. The transition team website acknowledges “the application process is rigorous.” To ask people to invest in the massive upfront costs of vetting and then prepare to resign a week into service because the U.S. carpet-bombs Syria might be too much of an ask. There’s a reason that principled resignations are rare. And the counterargument that someone else would just do your job anyway begins to sound way too much like a form of reasoning that echoes Hannah Arendt.

This is not an easy choice for principled Republicans to make. My advice to them is to apply for a position if they really want to serve. But pay very close attention to who gets appointed to which policy principal positions: Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Homeland Security, National Security Adviser, etc. If you believe you can honorably serve the president and your policy principal based on their past statements, then go for it. If that individual makes you feel queasy, then don’t.