Democracy & Elections

Donald Trump and a Tale of Two Washingtons

Benjamin Wittes
Monday, May 23, 2016, 4:12 PM

CNN reported yesterday that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—after many months of principled opposition to Donald Trump—has decided to become a Trump enabler after all:

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CNN reported yesterday that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—after many months of principled opposition to Donald Trump—has decided to become a Trump enabler after all:

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Donald Trump's fiercest critics, is now calling on Republicans to support their presumptive nominee.

Graham urged GOP donors at a private fundraiser Saturday in Florida to unite behind Trump's campaign and stressed the importance of keeping likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from the White House. The fundraiser was hosted by former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Al Hoffman, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman who also co-chaired Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.

"He did say that we need to get behind him," Teresa Dailey, a prominent Florida Republican fundraiser who attended the private event, told CNN on Sunday.

Et tu Lindsey?

[Editor's note: After this piece was published, CNN amended this report in a fashion that somewhat complicates Graham's position. Specifically, the article was "updated to include Sen. Lindsey Graham's comments on Monday disputing the original account, and to reflect that Teresa Dailey, a Florida Republican fundraiser who attended the event, offered a different characterization of the senator's comments when she appeared on CNN Monday than she had initially." That different characterization included the following: "Dailey acknowledged Monday that Graham did not specifically call on Republicans to 'get behind Donald Trump, exactly,' but that 'we need to get behind the party and support the party and do what we need to do to raise the funds necessary to make sure that Donald J. Trump is our next president of the United States.'" The story also says that "Graham on Monday disputed [the initial] characterization of his remarks, telling CNN that he is supporting neither Trump nor Clinton and that 'nothing's changed.'" He did, however, say that "he told donors that he will no longer pick a fight with Trump because it does no good."]

This support for Trump comes from a man who clearly knows better. Graham has called Trump a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot." He has said that the fight against Trump “is not about who we nominate anymore as Republicans as much as it’s [about] who we are.” He has said that “If we lose the 2016 election, so be it.... I want to be in a category of one percent who said 'B.S., this is not who we are as a party, this is not who we are as a nation.'" Graham believes, as I do, that Trump threatens American national security; indeed, he believes Trump’s election could lead to another September 11. I know this because he has said so.

But faced with the electoral choice of another 9/11 or Hillary Clinton, Graham apparently considers stopping Clinton the bigger priority.

Sen. Graham still has not, mind you, endorsed the “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” But it seems he's not insisting any longer either on being in the one percent who will keep the GOP, or the country, on the right path. He turns out, rather, to be part of that alarmingly large percentage of people who, when push comes to shove, can accommodate themselves to just about anything.

For which he gets today’s Franz von Papen Award.

It’s not that I don’t feel for Graham on this. I do. He is a man of genuine, if eccentric, substance who has shown independence of mind in the past on a range of issues. That’s what makes his capitulation on Trump so upsetting. And to be sure, he’s in a genuinely impossible position right now.

As my Brookings colleague Robert Kagan wrote last week in the Washington Post,

In [this] environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories—and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

Kagan might have been thinking of Graham when he wrote the words about mumbling the expressions of support. And I’d be shocked if he wasn’t thinking at least in part of Papen when he he wrote the words “let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.”

There’s a right answer to Graham’s dilemma, and it’s not to fall in line. It’s to stand tall and get run over. There are worse ignominies in the world than defeat. Graham, along with most of the rest of his party, is courting most of them now.

So let’s consider a different Washington for a moment, one that is also busily considering these days how to respond to the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency. This Washington is a quiet one. It doesn’t go on the Sunday talk shows. It doesn’t endorse presidential candidates. It is actually barred from engaging in political activity. I’m talking, of course, about the men and women who make up our professional national security bureaucracy.

Normally, such people are studiously apolitical. They’re public servants, after all, and they accept that they—as career officials—serve the institutions for which they work irrespective of whether the political leadership is Republican or Democratic. Some of them have opinions which they’ll share if asked. Some of them make a pointa discipline, you might sayof not having opinions.

That is in normal times.

I have not sure I have ever seen this cadre of professionals more unsettled than they are, as a group, today. It is not uncommon to hear people asking themselves whether they could continue in their current roles under Trump. It is not uncommon to hear people ruminate about whether the right course would be to resign or to stay and act as a checkwhich translates roughly to being an obstructionist of some sort or another. These are the murmurings that General Michael Hayden was channeling when he declared of Trump’s plans to target terrorists’ families: “If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.”

A Trump presidency would raise these issues not just for the military, but for the Justice Department, for the State Department, and particularly for the intelligence community, which wields a set of powers that are incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands. Nobody knows this better than the men and women who administer those powers and are daily bound by the constraints imposed to prevents abuses of them. How will those people react when they, like Graham, are faced with Kagan’s choice of getting right with the leader or getting run over?

There is at least some reason to hope that they, as a group, will do better than Graham has. For one thing, they don’t have voters. Graham has to fear the onslaught of popular anger that brought Trump to political stardom in the first place. The FBI office ordered to do something improper or the NSA analyst tasked with spying on the wrong person for the wrong reason does not face this particular pressure. These actors are also armed with a complex web of laws, rules, and investigative and oversight mechanisms that enable them to act as brakes; they are armed with elaborate compliance mechanisms that are, when government is sane and decent, sometimes resented as shackles. When government is insane and indecent, by contrast, those shackles can become a godsend. The bureaucrats are also armed with each other; a large bureaucracy full of burdensome procedures and people committed to those procedures is uniquely positioned in some respects to resist populist enthusiasms.

And all that said, the speed with which the Lindsey Grahams of the world have been brought to heel should give us all pause about which actors will plausibly act as the brakes here. Trump began his campaign by disgracefully taunting Sen. John McCain for having been captured and held as a POW during the Vietnam War. McCain, like Graham, today inexplicably supports Trump. There's nothing people can't rationalize.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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