There’s been a lot of failure in American politics these last four years, but has there been any more miserable and embarrassing than the alleged and, we now know, probably mythical “Resistance Inside The Trump Administration"?
Do you remember that? On Sept. 5, 2018 — barely a year ago, although it feels now like six or seven — a ranking member of the Trump administration published a remarkable, anonymous op-ed in the New York Times in which the author meant to assure the rest of America that — despite the downward-spiraling lunacy that we witness every day on our TV screen or in our Twitter feed — we should fear not because “many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Some 389 endless days later, we still don’t know who the writer is, but there’s one thing we can say with utter confidence. He or she is a coward. So, too, are literally dozens of other so-called public servants — many obscure, but some with the nation’s highest medals of valor pinned near their feckless, quivering hearts — who went to work each morning and watched an American president shred the Constitution and betray our fundamental values and yet chose to say nothing.
It took the great courage of one person — and two-thirds of an out-of-control president’s disastrous term in office — to show us how deeply the stench of fear otherwise permeated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That one whistle-blower — maybe a CIA agent, but definitely an individual who did not check his or her moral compass at the White House front gate — has revealed Trump’s abuse of power, potential lawbreaking and casual willingness to solicit, and arguably extort, foreign election interference in his dealings with Ukraine. These revelations have brought Trump to the brink of impeachment and could topple the tottering Jenga of corruption that has been his administration.
It never should have gotten this far.
Literally from Day One of Trump’s presidency, the millions of Americans worried about a president who seemed not just totally unprepared but often unmoored from reality were told that “the adults in the room” — a platoon of “the generals” as-seen-on-Trump’s-TV and some veteran political hands (Reince Priebus? ... anyone still remember that guy?) — were there to make sure the 45th president didn’t wake up one morning and order a nuclear attack on Barbados or some such thing.
Indeed, these bastions of a serious and supposedly incorruptible permanent political establishment made sure they leaked to the permanent media establishment in D.C. that their steady hands were on the actual tiller even as Trump wildly spun his reportedly fake steering wheel on Twitter. Three of them — the ex-general Defense Secretary James Mattis, oilman Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Wall-Streeter-turned-Treasury-Secretary Stephen Mnuchin — even put it out there (on background, of course) that their work in protecting America from their boss was so vital they had a sort-of-secret “suicide pact” to all quit if one of them was forced out.
The fact that Mnuchin — perhaps still intoxicated from inhaling those rolls of freshly printed money — is still on the job long after Mattis and John Kelly are gone — and in fact covering up on the president’s income taxes — is one of your “tells” that the entire notion of adults in the room with Trump was a fairy tale comprised of unadulterated baloney. They said absolutely nothing for 32 months while the president of the United States played footsie with the world’s worst dictators — especially the one who gleefully interfered in the last presidential election — and with America’s white supremacists, and took active, improper, and possibly illegal actions to cover up his tracks. The adults acted like chickens.
What are we to make of Trump’s second national security adviser (after the first dude got busted on a felony rap), Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who actually once authored a book entitled Dereliction of Duty to argue that America’s top generals “should not have tolerated” blatant lying by then-President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War? Yet in May 2017, McMaster sat in a room while Trump assured two top Russian diplomats he was untroubled by the evidence of their election interference (and also blabbed a major spy secret) and afterward tweeted their conversation was “wholly appropriate."
And what of John Kelly, the Marine general who both led Homeland Security and served as chief of staff? Kelly was the father of all “adults in the room,” whose arrival in the West Wing was greeted with rose petals and hailed as the “end of the chaos” by the D.C. intelligentsia — only to have Kelly bury his head and look the other way from Charlottesville to Helsinki, while he aided his boss in embarrassingly trashing a black woman critic and in quarterbacking the rise of American gulags? (And this was before we knew — thanks to the whistle-blower — that it was during Kelly’s reign that extraordinary steps were taken to shield Trump’s conversations, including a call right after the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi with Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman, whom our own CIA has fingered as the mastermind.)
Despite his reputation as a “warrior monk” immersed in The Art of War teachings of the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, former Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis proved to be more of a scared kitten as defense secretary as he watched Trump’s erratic and often dangerous foreign policies unfold from his perch at the Pentagon. Mattis ultimately did resign amid policy differences over the Middle East and other hot spots, but even in writing a recent book, he’s made it clear he won’t tell the public what he knows about Trump — that his silence is “maybe not going to be forever,” but that it is going to be now, when the world vitally needs to know what Mattis knows. Talk about dereliction of duty!
Despite appearances, morality is not dead in American governance. We’ve seen a fair amount of it these last two-and-two-thirds years, but most of it from mid-level players, several layers removed from Trump’s blinding aura of corruption. Let’s take a moment to praise and remember names like Rod Schoonover, who quit as a State Department intelligence officer when Team Trump blocked him from testifying on climate change, or Chuck Park, who resigned as a foreign service officer because he could no longer explain the “blatant contradictions” of the Trump era after El Paso, or John Feeley, who left in protest as U.S. ambassador to Panama after Trump’s remark about “shithole countries.”
But for every Schoonover or Park or Feeley, there’s a Gary Cohn, who weighed quitting as Trump’s chief economic adviser after Charlottesville when the president’s seeming defense of Neo-Nazis offended his Jewish heritage, but instead stayed until he did resign over Trump’s trade policies — a money-over-morals regime that feels all too familiar in 2019 America. For insiders uncomfortable with a clearly unfit president, there are both carrots and sticks for keeping one’s mouth shut.
The carrots? Just ask Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer, who from an official podium told some of the grossest lies in American history, beginning on Day Two with the inaugural crowd size, but has continued post-Trump to toe the company line and has not only not been banned from civil society but is being rewarded with a lucrative prime-time gig on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, flouting it in our faces with a puffy shirt that would have been deemed too ridiculous for Seinfeld.
But the stick for truth-telling can be ridiculously harsh. Just ask Reality Winner, the Air Force veteran and security contractor who was so outraged that the government was covering up the extent of Russian hacking into U.S. election-system computers that she decided to risk everything by leaking the proof to the media — and is paying with a harsh 63-month prison sentence, while banned by Trump administration wardens from even speaking to the press.
A promise to reverse this injustice and issue a full pardon to Winner should be the price of admission for anyone seeking to become the 46th (or 47th) president. But as a nation, we really should address the much deeper ethical rot that turns our truth-tellers into pariahs but offers an elaborate system of rewards — social and economic — to keep quiet and not rock the boat. To be “good Americans” and just follow orders. To be a moral coward.