Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
The Wall Street Journal has a surprisingly tough editorial urging President Trump to stop the “seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.” The thrust of the editorial is that Trump’s mendacity is hurting his presidency.
The President’s adversarial relationship with the truth has me wondering how it affects the officials who work closely with him or close to him. Most senior Executive branch officials see themselves to work for both the President and the nation (or the American people). What happens when the President turns out to be a serial public liar and a man who attacks (and seems to want to harm) American institutions like courts, the press, and the intelligence community, not to mention allies and alliances? How long, and under what circumstances, can one continue to serve a president who behaves in this fashion? The answers to these questions turn on personal commitments and judgments. But they also turn, I think, on the degrees of geographical and personal independence the official has from the president.
Earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers testified on national television that they could find no information to support Trump’s claim that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. It’s more than a little awkward to call the President you work for a liar on national television. (I wonder how that will go down during national security briefings—assuming they occur—with the President.) The president’s lies, and his attacks on the FBI and the intelligence community more broadly, certainly make it hard for Comey and Rogers to do their jobs. But they are both non-political appointees who lead agencies with missions largely independent of the White House. They likely see their jobs as detached from the goings-on in the White House, except to the extent that the White House becomes caught up in the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the election. I also expect that Comey and Rogers believe it is important to stay in their jobs out of commitment to the agencies they serve, and in order to minimize our unconventional President’s damage to their agencies and to national security more generally.
Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly probably see their roles in similar terms. These men were appointed by President Trump and they thus have a closer political connection to him than do Comey or Rogers. They also (unlike Comey and Rogers) have to deal with the President’s team’s political micro-monitoring and litmus tests related to their departments. But both men had long and distinguished careers in the military and enjoy outstanding reputations for independence and integrity. And they both run huge and hugely important agencies that for the most part operate independent of the White House. These men are probably more often involved in policy discussions with Trump and other White House officials than are Comey and Rogers, and thus likely bump up against the President’s dissembling more often. But like Comey and Rogers, I expect that they too believe it is important to persist in the jobs out of commitment to the agencies they serve, and to larger goals (like protecting alliances and defeating ISIL), and also to minimize Trump’s damage to their agencies and to national security more generally.
Matters become more complex, I think, for people who work in the White House. Perhaps those who serve on the National Security Council are in situations analogous to the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security. National Security Advisor McMaster and his staff are closer to the president—geographically and otherwise—than any of the officials mentioned thus far. McMaster is active duty military and may have viewed Trump’s offer of the job as a request from the Commander in Chief that he could not refuse. In addition, he and his staff can tell themselves (and others) that their mission is primarily to protect the American people and that it is thus important, despite the President’s odd and often destructive behavior, to stay in the jobs to protect the NSC and to minimize damage to national security by the unconventional President.
But what about the President’s other senior political and legal appointees in the White House? These officials seem to be in the worst position of all. Their primary mission is to serve the nation by serving the president directly. Yes, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus can tell himself that he is helping the Republican Party and the American people by helping the President. And White House Counsel Don McGahn and his team can tell themselves that they are serving the nation—for example, in their important work selecting judges and enforcing ethics rules—beyond just helping the President. But much of the work of these officials amounts to little more than enabling and protecting the President, personally and politically. That becomes a problem when the enabling and protecting comes in the service of mendacity or in a way inextricable from mendacity.
A good deal of the daily work by these officials in the White House, in other words, is a lower-key version of the work of Sean Spicer, who compromises himself daily in order to prop up the president’s lies and destructive actions. I imagine that these officials have the hardest time telling themselves (and others) a story about why their services are needed to minimize the damage Trump is causing, for these are the officials whose jobs are largely devoted to empowering the President. (I imagine it is especially hard for the young, super-accomplished line attorneys in the White House Counsel’s office to work in support of a truth-defying President who incessantly trashes courts and the legal system in ways that Neil Gorsuch finds "disheartening” and “demoralizing.”) These are the jobs that are hardest to serve in if one disrespects the President. These jobs will likely grow harder and harder if the Trump presidency continues to accomplish so little, especially if the FBI investigations begin to absorb White House political and legal attention. And these are the jobs about which it will be harder to explain later why one continued in the job after it was clear that the President one worked so hard to support was so unworthy of his office.
Throughout the latter part of the campaign, Trump’s supporters often pointed to Salena Zito’s line about Trump: “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” But while it might be acceptable to dismiss Trump’s unsupported or irresponsible statements as a candidate, it is not so easy to dismiss them as president. The President’s words matter, a lot. And that makes it hard to serve him--for some positions, more than others.