Selectively Disobeying Trump’s Orders

Just how far should White House staffers and civil servants go in protecting the public from an erratic president?

Two pieces out over the weekend point to the problems with hoping that people who work for President Trump will protect us from him.

First, Isaac Chotiner‘s book review in Slate (“Nobody’s Heroes: Bob Woodward’s new book presents Trump staffers as our last line of defense. We’re doomed.“)

Nearly 300 pages into Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, a West Wing aide named Zach Fuentes cautions fellow staffers. With depressingly familiar words, Fuentes informs his colleagues, “He’s not a detail guy. Never put more than one page in front of him. Even if he’ll glance at it, he’s not going to read the whole thing. Make sure you underline or put in bold the main points … you’ll have 30 seconds to talk to him. If you haven’t grabbed his attention, he won’t focus.” Some subjects, such as the military, do engage him, but the overwhelming picture is worrying and dire. Still, one could finish this passage and feel at least slightly relieved that people like Fuentes are aware of the reigning deficiencies in the White House, and doing their best to mitigate them.

Fuentes is merely an assistant to John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, but Kelly and James Mattis, the secretary of defense, are presented throughout Woodward’s book as being cognizant of the president’s extreme limitations and authoritarian instincts, and rather boldly willing to push back against their boss. This is why it’s probably worth mentioning that Fuentes wasn’t talking about Donald Trump; no, he was talking about John Kelly. And Woodward’s book—which arrived at around the same time as the already infamous, still-currently anonymous New York Times op-ed about the men and women in the executive branch supposedly working to protect America from Donald Trump—is as much a portrait of the craven, ineffective, and counterproductive group of “adults” surrounding Trump as it is a more predictable look into the president’s shortcomings.

[…]

Fear is a book full of stories about Trump being contained; his instincts being thwarted; his worst qualities being slightly minimized by people who claim to be afraid of what would happen if they weren’t there. “It’s not what we did for the country,” former Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn says early on. “It’s what we saved him from doing.” Quotes like this aim to settle the ethical debate—which has been going on from the start of the Trump presidency—over whether anyone should be working for a bigoted and corrupt president with no respect for democracy, even if they are planning to, in that most tiresome phrase, contain his worst impulses. But that conversation has obscured the more pressing question of what those supposedly well-intentioned individuals can actually accomplish from the inside. Even allowing for the self-serving nature of the accounts that Woodward offers here, the answer appears to be: not much.

Indeed, the near-misses Woodward writes about feel particularly insubstantial, in part because very few of these aides and appointees seem to really grasp the nature of the man they are serving (no matter how much they talk about his stupidity and recklessness), and in part because Trump himself is so clueless and aimless that he rarely seems to follow through on his worst ideas anyway. (The terrible things he has followed through on, such as various immigration policies, are not really discussed at length, and on these matters a good chunk of his staff appear to agree with him.) Moreover, many of these aides are tasked with—or see their roles as—not preventing policy decisions, but instead as putting the nicest, non-Trumpy face on Trumpism; the ethics of this deserves its own debate.

Loren DeJonge Schulman tackles precisely that in her WaPo Sunday Outlook piece “Civil servants can’t stop Trump. Stop asking them to.

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 faithfullyWe 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.

She spends the next several paragraphs discussing the personal dilemmas of civil servants wrestling with policies they believe bad for the country and, especially, dealing with a president who treats them as the enemy. They’re worth a read. But I want to focus on this:

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.

Three decades ago, my senior year ROTC instructor, Major Sid Kooyman, made a statement that has stuck with me all these years: “It’s an officer’s duty to selectively disobey orders.” I don’t recall the context in which he said it or whether he attributed it to General Edward “Shy” Meyer, who had been Army Chief of Staff a few years earlier.

Meyer’s admonition, controversial at the time, was for leaders to protect their subordinates from the deluge of taskers that come down the chain of command. Trying to accomplish all of them would exhaust your soldiers and be to the ultimate detriment of the nation, to boot. So judgment was required in figuring out which orders to prioritize and which to ignore.

I think I did that, both as an officer and in subsequent civilian postings. But I took the advice in a different direction: that I owed it to not only my subordinates but also my bosses to push back on or even disobey directions that were stupid and counterproductive. Thankfully, I’ve had few bosses who were incompetent. But I’ve had otherwise great bosses whose enthusiasm was their own worst enemy. They had too many “good ideas” that were beyond the ability of the organization to successfully execute.

The quote came back to me almost immediately when the NYT op-ed and Woodward excerpts appeared. My initial thought was that, given Trump’s known impulsiveness, it was not only laudable but imperative for his staffers to protect him—and the country—by not following stupid and dangerous diktats.

But Schulman is right: it’s not at all clear where one draws the line.

Like it or not, Donald Trump is the duly elected President of the United States. He’s entitled to have his lawful orders followed by his subordinates in the Executive Branch of our government. It’s not up to GS-12s or majors to substitute their judgment for his. The same is ultimately true of “senior administration officials,” however one defines that term. While one gets the impression that a goodly number of his top advisors think he’s temperamentally unfit for the office, if not mentally unsound, we apparently do not the overwhelming quorum required by the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

In principle, I not only don’t object to but endorse the Chief of Staff or other very high ranking officials thwarting Trump’s petulantly issued orders if they’re reasonably sure he won’t follow up on them in the morning. But his sustained, lawful policy preferences ought to be vigorously executed by his team. If they can’t do that in good conscience, they ought either resign or work harder to convince the Vice President that it’s time to invoke the 25th.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    You quote Schulman

    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.

    An active civil service provides bumpers, and makes the government fundamentally conservative (with a little c) — government can turn this fast and no faster. It protects the status quo. This can be either good or bad depending on the status quo, and what the change is.

    But even an inactive civil service will do similar things, just to a smaller degree.

    It’s a problem that every leader of an organization has — you have to get people to implement your changes. I’ve worked at places where a new senior manager attempts to make the organization turn on a dime, with merely the expectation that because they have said something that it will get done, and it’s never worked well. It takes a great manager to be able to do this.

    With all the complaints about people not following Trump’s instructions, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s a terrible manager.

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  2. Tony W says:

    It is a cowardly approach, meant only to maintain the individual’s marketability when this whole thing crashes down.

    If you object to this president, then stop being a part of his White House – period. Don’t enable it.

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  3. Kit says:

    I’ve just read another revelation from Woodward’s book stating that Trump almost sent a tweet that North Korea would have taken as warning of attack. Being in a position to stop such madness is worth far more than any resignation. Command the day’s news cycle or avert a nuclear conflagration? Trump has not hired with the best people, but even those once-eager people now surrounding him see what is happening. When the captain of the Ship of State is hell bent on crashing into the reef, there is no time for talk about how interference would set a bad precedent.

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  4. Bob@Youngstown says:

    But his sustained, lawful policy preferences ought to be vigorously executed by his team.

    Emphasis on lawful

    In public pronouncements it is clear that the president considers “lawful” anything he requests, simply because he is the sitting president.

    I’m can image Trump, in reacting to the Woodward book, suggesting the IRS to give Woodward’s tax returns a through scrubbing. Even if it were completely legal, I would hope that cooler heads at the IRS would slow-walk that request. Is that undermining the president, is that sabotaging the president’s agenda?

    My observation on the anonymous op-ed is that it lacks specificity as to what actions were defied.

    On it’s face, it sounds like the same kind of letter I could have written when I was employed by an erratic, impetuous boss who was completely unaware of the consequences of a knee-jerk reaction. I too, to some solace in that most others under that boss also recognized that a week or two later the boss would calm down and recant. (Fortunately in 45 years I had but one or two such “hot-reactors”)

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    From the Chotiner quote:

    (The terrible things he has followed through on, such as various immigration policies, are not really discussed at length, and on these matters a good chunk of his staff appear to agree with him.) Moreover, many of these aides are tasked with—or see their roles as—not preventing policy decisions, but instead as putting the nicest, non-Trumpy face on Trumpism;

    “Anonymous” isn’t protecting small d democracy and truth, justice, and the American Way. Judging from his (her, their?) op-ed, he wants Trumpism without Trump. The same blood and soil populism and proto-autarchy, but with “free trade” deals and a smiley face. And a competent leader. Or at least a manageable leader.

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    We need to differentiate between civil service employees and political appointees. A civil service employee has to fulfill any and all lawful orders. A civil service employee also has the duty to refuse to fulfill an unlawful order. What is more, they have protections under the law against retaliation for said refusal. (or do I have the civil service protection rules wrong?)

    Political appointees on the other hand, serve at the will of the President. They have no protections and can be fired because the President doen’t like their ties.

    I have not read more than the bits and pieces of the NYT op-ed and Woodwards book that have been printed elsewhere, but from what I have read, we are talking about political appointees thwarting/managing the President.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    “[F]rom what I have read, we are talking about political appointees thwarting/managing the President.”

    Because of anonymity and vague sourcing, it’s hard to say. I do gather most of them are appointees. But Schulman’s piece is about the “Deep State” doing the same.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact. Unfortunately, the voters decided to commit suicide.

    I keep going back to this being a catastrophic voter failure precisely because we have no Constitutional measures to deal effectively with voter failure in an era when a POTUS can destroy most of the human race in thirty minutes. Voters chose someone so toxic, so incompetent, so stupid, narcissistic and incapable of performing the duties of the office that the only way to redress the problem is by removing that person from office.

    Unfortunately, those same voters elected men like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan as well. The Founders were prepared for all sorts of eventualities, but not prepared for voters to fail so spectacularly that both the Executive and the Congress would be run by crooks and cowards. The imbecility of 46% of American voters has outwitted the best efforts of the Founders to limit our self-destructive tendencies.

    Essentially, if enough voters want to shoot themselves in the head there isn’t much we can do (legally) to stop them murdering the rest of us, too.

    Now, I understand and agree in principle with the argument that unelected officials treating the president like a malicious three year-old is wrong. In the abstract. In reality, there really is a malicious three year-old, armed with 7,000 nuclear warheads and a 20 trillion dollar economy and like most people I don’t want to go down with the good ship S.S. Stupid. If the best I can get is a spineless, complicit hypocrite at least trying to manage this disaster, I’ll take it.

    If Republicans don’t like it, I have two words of advice: Fck You. You did this. It’s your fault. Stop being morons and we won’t be reduced to this in future.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: OK, but it still comes down to the lawful/unlawful question, does it not? Personally, while I despise trump and everything he is trying to do, I am not very comfortable with the idea of people not doing what they are lawfully told to do. (and I’m not talking about waiting 24 hours to see if the boss changes his mind after cooling down. Stealing papers from his desk is whole ‘nother level) A President can not legally command somebody to break the law.

    “I vas just followingk orders.” still isn’t a get out of jail card.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: In extremis, you’re right. But it’s a slippery slope from stopping a President doing something truly dangerous and irreversible to substituting your judgment for his. It’s a genie that’s hard to get back in the bottle post-Trump.

    @OzarkHillbilly: Agreed. We don’t seem to be talking about illegal orders, though. Most of what I’m seeing is keeping Trump from doing stupid shit. I’m in favor of him not doing stupid shit; I’m more than a little uncomfortable with doing so illegally.

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  11. Andy says:

    James,

    During my time in the uniformed and civil service, I heard the “duty to selectively disobey orders” a lot as well. However, the key word is “selectively.” One of the things that make our military forces so good is that we enable decision-making and initiative at lower levels – subordinates are taught to understand that the “commander’s intent” is the most important consideration and that it’s acceptable – and even encouraged – to take initiative in pursuit of the that intent, even if that means ignoring or modifying some discrete order.

    Secondly is the issue of priority. In any large organization, a non-trivial number of upper-level managers do not fully understand what implementing their ideas will require. I can’t count the number of times I was “ordered” to do something that I/we did not have the time or resources to accomplish because management failed to appreciate the costs and effects.

    Third, there are times when multiple orders are in conflict or at cross-purposes. Clearly, that is a case when one has no choice but to selectively disobey an order or directive.

    I’m not sure any of these cases (except maybe the last) represents what is going on in the Trump administration. If the anecdotes are to be believed, it sounds a lot more like usurping the commanders intent rather than selectively ignoring directives for legitimate reasons. I think the fact that this is being done in secret tells us all we need to know.

    Clearly Pres. Trump is a terrible manager. He has all the signs and I’ve had the misfortune to work for such individuals in the past. Fortunately, most of those I worked with were merely inexperienced (young officers generally) and were open to advice and could be taught & mentored over time. In such cases, I would work to protect that leader from their own bad decisions but would try to do so in a way that was open so they would not make the same mistake again.

    That’s not the case with Pres. Trump. He clearly can be talked out of things, but too often he believes his own BS and forges ahead regardless. In those cases, he needs to be made to own his decisions so that he can be held accountable for them by the public. In my experience, that is the only real way to deal with toxically bad leadership and management and that is not happening, thanks to the cowards in our political class who would rather protect their own asses and abuse their position and authority. Their actions are, IMO, both counterproductive and institutionally destructive. And, ironically they are actions that agruably benefit Pres. Trump more than it hurts him.

    I think the HL Mencken quote is useful: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

    We can’t save our institutions from the excesses Pres. Trump by destroying those institutions. The Executive branch bureaucracy must not be given the authority or room to decide when to actively oppose a President. Those who think what is going on is a good thing should consider how they would feel if this same thing happened to a President they support.

    “Protecting” the nation from Trump’s impulses is not a sufficient worry to risk creating a modern-day praetorian guard. First principles are what should guide our political class, not naked self-interest.

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  12. Kathy says:

    There is much valuable information here. For instance, the Cheeto apologists who keep saying Trump’s doing just fine, and none of the catastrophe predicted if he’d won have come to pass, now can admit, if they dare, that it’s in no small measure due to the fact that El Cheeto’s been restrained.

    But restrained how?

    We know they didn’t restrain him for the travel ban, the pull out from the TPP, or the myriad cruel actions involving immigration. So what have they done? Cohn claims to have salvaged the trade agreement with South Korea. Maybe this is so. Consider Trump’s rhetoric, and it’s not a stretch to think he wanted to pull out of other trade treaties he has criticized, such as NAFTA. Perhaps, too, he has ordered a pull out from NATO.

    Then, too, we’ve been told he ordered Assad Jr. killed. We know there were consultations, at the least, with coup plotters in Venezuela, and that El Cheeto has wondered why he can’t just invade Venezuela and do the regime change that worked so well in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who knows what or how else he might have escalated things with North Korea. Then add his subservience to Putin, which has been ruined by automatically imposed sanctions, and we know he was tricked into expelling a bunch of Russian “diplomats.” And don’t forget his comment about “fine people” among neo nazis and the KKK.

    Worst case scenario, then, imagine the US pulling out from various trade treaties and NATO, plus involved in a war in Venezuela (which, BTW, is ideal guerrilla territory, with varied jungle and mountainous terrain), heightened tensions in the Koran peninsula, the current trade war (or a more extensive one), lifting sanctions on Russia, perhaps recognizing the annexation of Crimea.

    What would such a world look like?

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  13. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I agree with you to the extent that this is a failure of partisan/primary voters. In our system, we only have two real choices which are chosen by small, unrepresentative groups in each party. The rest of America then has to decide which is the less-bad candidate.

    We’re going to have this problem as long as the parties keep selecting terrible candidates. It’s GIGO. If you want to improve outcomes vis-a-vis the typical American voter, then give them better candidates to choose from.

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  14. steve says:

    James- May I assume you read Dereliction of Duty? I think the right thing for these people to do is to resign. As things stand, the voters can be persuaded that things are not that bad. Woodward is lying. Of course the NYT is lying. Massive resignations woulds make it harder to not see what is going on. I would also suggest that they have a duty to not just resign, but to tell us why they are resigning.

    Andy- Largely agree on needing better candidates, but OTOH we can’t forget that Trump was the preferred candidate for the GOP. Most of those other candidates in the primary would have been much better.

    Steve

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  15. Andy says:

    @steve:

    Andy- Largely agree on needing better candidates, but OTOH we can’t forget that Trump was the preferred candidate for the GOP. Most of those other candidates in the primary would have been much better.

    Oh, I realize who picked Trump and why – I think it illustrates my point – the primary voter is not representative of the general US voter. I think that’s a problem since it’s the primary voter that selects candidates.

    You can look at the Florida Governor’s race for an example of what the future is likely to be – the parties selected two extreme candidates. One of them will win, but neither will enjoy majority support since both are far outside the mainstream of the average Florida voter.

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  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I will differ with Mr. Reynolds on one point. I believe that THE FOUNDERS [tm] did anticipate the failure of the voting public–they just realized that such a failure would establish that the Constitution they’d agreed on would not work. Remember the statement attributed to Franklin that the nation got “a republic, if you can keep it.”

    (At this point, my inner conservative starts muttering “it all goes south when you start letting people who aren’t stakeholders–who don’t own property, businesses, etc.–share in the decision making.” But my inner conservative is an aristocrat at heart and would be willing to try oligarchy if–and only if–he got to be the head oligarch.)

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  17. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @steve:

    Woodward is lying

    Scintilla of evidence ?

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve: No the other candidates wouldn’t have been “better,” they would only have been “less bad” in the sense of not being crude. The decisions would have been identical or qualitatively comparable in the context of most of what people here are considering “important.” In foreign policy, one might argue “better” from the standpoint that there would probably not be any of the bat shirt crazy stuff, but that would have been off set by more activist ME policies that might have doubled down on “nation building.”

    Yes, it’s a mixed bag, but not objectively better–0nly different.

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  19. steve says:

    “Oh, I realize who picked Trump and why – I think it illustrates my point – the primary voter is not representative of the general US voter. I think that’s a problem since it’s the primary voter that selects candidates.”

    Excellent point, which I keep forgetting. Was it Nixon who said run as far to the extremes as you can in the primary and then back to the middle for the general election? Now with emphasis on turnout elections, you don’t turn back to the middle.

    Steve

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  20. Kit says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    At this point, my inner conservative starts muttering “it all goes south when you start letting people who aren’t stakeholders–who don’t own property, businesses, etc.–share in the decision making.”

    So I take it that some guy out fighting for his country while renting an apartment back home is not a stake holder. Nor are those parents who rent so as to be able to send their kids to better schools. The list goes on… In any case, this sounds more like a weak plutocracy.

    But my inner conservative is an aristocrat at heart and would be willing to try oligarchy

    Aristocracy (role by the best) is opposed to oligarchy (rule by the few).

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    So many organizations depend on the judgement of subordinates as to when orders should be ignored that actually obeying all orders has become to be considered a form of deliberate sabotage:

    Malicious Compliance

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  22. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I believe that THE FOUNDERS [tm] did anticipate the failure of the voting public

    And wasn’t that the foundation for the Electoral College? Where the electors were free to vote for persons THEY felt most qualified- and not limited to the “public preference”.

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  23. JKB says:

    One is sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, but you don’t get your own interpretation. Nor do you get your own interpretation of the laws, or in a presidential administration, policies.

    If you feel strongly, you stand athwart history and yell stop. Of course, you’re likely to take a bullet, metaphorically. Being disloyal and subversive is unlikely to be seen well by objective observers.

    This is actually the theme of many movies. See Colonel “Jiggs” Casey in ‘Seven Days of May’ being disloyal to his boss in order to thwart his bosses disloyalty to his boss. Or look at Fletcher Knebel’s ‘Vanished’ where many around the president shift against him only to lose when the President’s gambit pays off.

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  24. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner:

    substituting your judgment for his. It’s a genie that’s hard to get back in the bottle post-Trump.

    This is absurd. Any *reasonable* president would be a far better manager and this point would be moot.

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  25. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @JKB:

    One is sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, but you don’t get your own interpretation

    ‘Cept when your the president.
    ( I don’t have to respond to your stinkin’ subpoena. )

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  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    We don’t live in a world where we can shrug and say, “OK, the president’s a POS, but them’s the breaks.” The dumb bastard was apparently minutes from a Tweet that would have caused mass hysteria in South Korea and quite possibly pushed Kim to launch a pre-emptive attack. This is not the 19th century, bad things happen really fast. At any moment of the day or night the creature that people like you recklessly and spitefully elevated to power can hear that there are missiles incoming. How will he react? Do you want it up to him, or do you want some ‘anonymous’ grownup who can actually, you know, read and think and form a coherent thought?

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  27. Gustopher says:

    Given that we don’t really know who has done what to keep the President in check, and that the anonymous op-ed was mostly self-serving and self-aggrandizing… aren’t we being a bit hasty in saying that this rises to the level of anything?

    This could just as easily be people dealing with a crappy boss, and convincing themselves that they are saving the republic.

    Do we really think that Donald Trump just forgot to check to see how the assignation of Assad was going? I think most people would remember asking for plans to assasinate someone.

    I don’t want to defend Trump, but I don’t believe any of these vermin without a lot of corroborating evidence.

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  28. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy:
    It’s a useful and heartening distinction defining this in terms of primary voters. That gives me hope.

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  29. gVOR08 says:

    @Andy: @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    But my inner conservative is an aristocrat at heart and would be willing to try oligarchy if–and only if–he got to be the head oligarch.)

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    But my inner conservative is an aristocrat at heart and would be willing to try oligarchy if–and only if–he got to be the head oligarch.)

    That’s the sticking point, isn’t it? Democracy doesn’t work all that well. But while I see the Mencken quote all the time, I don’t recall ever seeing his counter-proposal. Many people would be quite happy in an oligarchy, Putin, who controls the media, is quite popular. It appears for many people aren’t bothered by having people above them on the ladder, the important thing is to have someone below. But autarchies seldom seem to work out very well. So we’re left having to support and defend democracy, messy as it is.

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  30. dazedandconfused says:

    The only point I push back on a wee bit is the assumption this is a “genie not easily stuffed back in the bottle.”

    We’ve had incapacitated POTUS’s before. Wilson’s wife ran the office while her husband was rendered nearly Trump-like by a stroke. With each new administration we get new high level staff, and a competent, engaged POTUS can stuff that genie back with a direct statement of new (old?) policy in effect immediately.

    I believe it is wrong to assume staffers will fight for the working conditions of serving under such as a Trump. IMO working for a malignant narcissist is among the most challenging tasks possible in normal life, but an incompetents malignant narcissist?? All but impossibly stressful.

    Clearly the Constitution assumed we might elect an effing moron and a rough framework of dealing with that on was incorporated…but there is no way I can see to have normalized such a condition. There is bound to be some messiness, and we should expect it.

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  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kit: Please note that my inner conservative is not a particularly nice or good person. It is part of what colors my thoroughly jaundiced view of conservative political philosophy. As I have noted before, the political right in the US is absolutely, comprehensively, and entirely wrong about all matters of social, domestic, and foreign policy.

    And, yes, my inner conservative DOES exclude all of those people from stakeholding although the soldier can be included if he stands to inherit real property or owns his own. Not a nice person.

    One more point–Aristotle makes the distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy on the basis of the ends. Aristocracies rule to the benefit of the whole society, oligarchs rule to the benefit of themselves but both are rule by “the few.” My inner conservative is not one to embrace rule by kleptos unless he will derive the most benefit from the stealing.

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  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: As I understand the situation, electors were expected to be representatives of specific candidates, so in theory, the process was quasi-direct. When I was in school, the standard explanation for electors was that even as small as the landmass of the original 13 states was, national campaigning was recognized as impractical, so candidates sought electors who would best represent the candidate. As late as the 1970s, Washington State ballots had voters choose between “The Electors for Gerald Ford” and “The Electors for Jimmy Carter.”

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  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Tony W: What makes you confident that Americans are going to vote for “reasonable” Presidents anymore? I know I have little confidence of it.

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  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @gVOR08: I agree but will demure on one minor point, democracies [ETA: ONLY] tend to be more likely to have more continuous benevolent/beneficial/evenhanded rule. In Aristotle’s writings on the subject the positive/”good” version of majority rule was called “polity” and the unbalanced/”bad” version was called … “democracy.”

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  35. Gromitt Gunn says:

    It’s definitely important to note difference between civil servants and political employees as others have done. When I was a civil servant at a state agency, I endured through several changes of political ‘leadership.’ I choose the word ‘endured’ with intent, because I truly feel that a key element of the job of the civil servant is to protect the work of the agency, provide the necessary services on behalf of and/or to the general public, and follow the administrative / statutory / regulatory law in spite of the best efforts of political employees and elected officials to derail those efforts.

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  36. Kit says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I could talk political philosophy all night, just not around bedtime on a school night. I’ll just limit myself to two points.

    First, disenfranchising people is the surest means of ensuring that not only will people lack a stake in the state, they will have a stake in over turning it. Certainly not a condition that a true conservative should relish.

    Second, I’m waiting for the day when a man will calmly and persuasively argue that he and his kind should not have the vote. Then I’ll be all ears! Instead, I hear arguments for how a man’s secret (or not so secret) pride justifies he and his ruling over others: military service, being white, old blood, new money, running a business, being smart, hearing the voice of God, owning a house. No thanks. The only right to rule that rings true to my ears is elevate those having an alias no longer than three letters long…

    Kit

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  37. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Were that the case, there is no rationale for “winner take all”.

    My comment was more directed at:

    Some founders wanted direct election; others mistrusted average voters’ “capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates,” as George Mason put it. How could some farmer from Virginia or New York know enough about the candidates.

    Thus Mason was suggesting that voters should elect a “college” of respected and knowledgeable representatives (electoral electors) who would choose among themselves the best, most competent, (etc) to be the president.

    Well, that was at least one theory on the origins and rationale of the EC.

    I don’t want to dispute it with you, just wanted to explain my comment . (besides it not really on-topic)

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  38. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Do you want it up to him, or do you want some ‘anonymous’ grownup who can actually, you know, read and think and form a coherent thought?

    How do I know “some ‘anonymous’ grownup who can actually, … read and think and form a coherent thought?” I don’t. And guess what? Neither do you.

    Like it or not Michael, your solution to the problem of trump is not a solution. It’s a bigger problem.

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  39. Barry says:

    @Andy: “I agree with you to the extent that this is a failure of partisan/primary voters. In our system, we only have two real choices which are chosen by small, unrepresentative groups in each party. The rest of America then has to decide which is the less-bad candidate.

    We’re going to have this problem as long as the parties keep selecting terrible candidates. It’s GIGO. If you want to improve outcomes vis-a-vis the typical American voter, then give them better candidates to choose from.”

    They didn’t. The Democratic Party nominated a competent and patriotic candidate.

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  40. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Every time that I vote for a President, governor or mayor I take a look at the people surrounding the candidates. They are as important as the candidate itself. So, there is no coup here. To me the real problem is that part of the Presidents job is to bar the stupid ideas coming from cabinet members and his closest advisers.

    If Mathis is working to block Trump stupid ideas then who is going to block Mathis stupid ideas? But when people were voting for Trump they were voting for this.

    Elections have consequences.

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  41. Hal_10000 says:

    @steve:

    Massive resignations woulds make it harder to not see what is going on. I would also suggest that they have a duty to not just resign, but to tell us why they are resigning.

    This sounds optimistic to me. A mass wave of resignations would be seen by the Trumpists as a victory over the “deep state” not a sign of a failing Administration. We’re in uncharted waters here. And I feel that resigning, while making a hero of the resigner, won’t accomplish anything.

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  42. Andy says:

    @Barry:

    They didn’t. The Democratic Party nominated a competent and patriotic candidate.

    Given what we know about Clinton’s campaign missteps and own goals – which is what cost her the election – I’m genuinely surprised to hear there is anyone left who thinks she was a competent candidate.

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  43. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Andy:

    I’m genuinely surprised to hear there is anyone left who thinks she was a competent candidate.

    Hillary might be incompetent politician and she might be doing lots of stupid things if she were in the White House. But we would know that she would be doing the stupid things, not her aides.

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  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Tony W: Sadly, it’s not that simple for them. From what Anonymous was saying, they like Trump the tax-cutting, free trade abandoning, racist, hard line on NK President just fine. They don’t care as much for Trump the tiny fingered vulgarian who says crazy things and is mean to the staff, but would probably be willing to live with him if he’d tone it down some. The message may be an impassioned plea to the base to crimp down on the praise so that they can finish looting and pillaging the country in addition to trying to give a hopeful note to the opposition that they really, reeeeeallllly are doing what they can to control him so that we’ll stop pushing impeachment.

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  45. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kit: I will note that I actually agree with you on both your points (as I did in relative to your previous reply). The inner conservative down in the abyss that is my soul doesn’t share all of my more enlightened views–or probably any, as far as that goes. But unfortunately, he’s in ascendancy on some of the elements of our natonal dysfunction at this moment. (He’s also the one, ironically enough, who thinks I should apologize for not letting Eldridge, Angela, and Huey burn the suckah to the ground back in the day.)

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  46. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: Thanks! I get your thinking and see that the direction is different from what I was thinking. And the convention muted the “benevolent aristocracy” aspects of Mason was advocating to a significant degree, and up until now, I was grateful. Currently, not quite so much.
    ETA: Still mostly grateful though.

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  47. Tonneau Cover says:

    The staffers really have a hard job but they are doing great knowing the many would benefit.

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  48. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: @Andy:
    I think we’re using the word ‘candidate’ in two related but different ways. Was Hillary good at the job of running? No. Was she a perfectly respectable choice of a person to hold the office of presidency? Yes.

    If any of us here owned a company and had an HR department, and our HR department was down to just two possible hires, Hillary or Trump, and our HR department hired Trump we’d fire the head of HR.

    A chimpanzee could have figured that choice out. Only misogyny, spite, recklessness or stupidity explain choosing Trump over Hillary.

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  49. Kit says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: We’re all a mass of contradictions deep down; you’re just more open about it

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  50. Kit says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Only misogyny, spite, recklessness or stupidity explain choosing Trump over Hillary.

    While I think you’ve got the root of the matter, Trump did enter as a true outsider, and benefited from the persistent (if mistaken) notion that a business man is superior to a politician. But for my money, he was the first person who gave the voting public permission to vent all the bile and nastiness in their souls. It felt good!

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  51. dazedandconfused says:

    Hillary represented the status quo. She lost to both Obama and Trump because they represented change. Close calls both times. To conclude Hillary wasn’t competent because she lost by a few votes in a few states?

    HDS.

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  52. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kit: My psychiatrist told me that it was important to recognize how my character effects my affect. So does my religion. The difference is that the religion also tells me that I need to compare those things to what would be beneficial to others as well as myself. The psychiatrist was more neutral and would accept congruence.

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