By now, everyone with a pulse and an Internet connection has read the op-ed heard ‘round the world — the stomach-churning, head-spinning testimony published anonymously in The New York Times by a senior Trump administration official widely christened “Deep State Throat.”
In his or her tell-all, the official excoriated Trump for his erratic behavior and instability and swore to be part of a covert resistance. “Our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” he or she wrote. “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
Some commentators critical of the president on the left and the right were quick to applaud the writer’s honesty and patriotism; The New York Times itself cited the writer’s “moral urgency.” I, however, call B.S. It is not patriotic to orchestrate an administrative coup d’état obscured by darkness.
First, the article added little to our collective understanding of the Trump administration. We know about the president’s “anti-trade, anti-democratic impulses” and his amorality, derangement, lack of intellectual competence and affection for authoritarian regimes. The incessant dribble of leaks from the White House (including from the president’s inner orbit) have told us as much since the day he was inaugurated. His own aides and Cabinet secretaries have called Trump a “liar” (lawyer John Dowd), a “f*cking moron” (former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), an “idiot” and “unhinged” (White House Chief of Staff John Kelly), “dumb” (former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn) and like a “fifth- or sixth-grader” (Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis). The content of the op-ed is not newsworthy. But its subtler implications certainly are.
The most important revelation in the op-ed lies in the existence of the “unsung heroes” who claimed to be “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” This asserts that the country, at least to some extent, is currently governed by an unnamed, unelected cabal that has taken it upon itself to block and undermine the elected government. While this may be our salvation in the short run (think Cohn swiping letters from Trump’s desk calling for withdrawal from key trade agreements), it changes our politics from an open democratic dialogue to a conflict of hidden factions.
An anonymous confederation cannot govern democratically because we do not know who is governing. They do not work for us.
According to the writer’s stunted logic, invoking the Constitution’s own measures and mechanisms designed for this type of emergency would create a “constitutional crisis.” No. The real constitutional crisis has been precipitated by those who have conspired to keep an unfit man in office in order to promote their own political agenda. It is true that removing an atrocious leader like Trump would be easier in a parliamentary system — simply call for a vote of no confidence. Even though we don’t have that option in the U.S., resorting to attempted sabotage in secret is un-American. We still have constitutional means to deal with this dire moment.
For example, a mass resignation of Trump staffers would be appropriate. To quote my favorite musical, Hamilton, “If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse / You can’t put it out from inside the house.”
The op-ed writer and his or her colleagues could fight the fire from outside the [White] House by taking their testimony to the Congress in a formal hearing. That would certainly generate enough of an impact on the midterm elections to transfer power to Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives, which would provide a check on the president. If he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, articles of impeachment could be drafted and proceedings thereof could begin.
Activation of the provisions of the 25th Amendment will remain unlikely no matter what — tribalism on the part of the Cabinet secretaries is insurmountable. Shadow governments must never be on the table in a proud democracy.
I don’t doubt that this anonymous writer and his or her colleagues may have thwarted a number of horrific crises, of which we have no idea. But Daniel Ellsberg they are not.
If precedent is set for there to be no chain of command and no accountability, then we’re in even more trouble than we thought we were. The democratic norms that we hold dear will far outlive Trump, and in order to sustain them, we must address crises openly and honestly as a nation. Not through self-appointed saviors.