‘Adults’ in room with Trump now search their souls

Woonsocket Call - - Opinion - By ROBERT KAGAN Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post Kagan is a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and a con­tribut­ing colum­nist for The Post.

There was a time, in the early days of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, when a de­cent, pa­tri­otic per­son could make a case for serv­ing this pres­i­dent. If all the com­pe­tent peo­ple re­fused, the gov­ern­ment would be run by in­com­pe­tents. Bet­ter to sur­round Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump with "adults" than to leave him to his own de­vices. Op­ti­mists ar­gued that Trump had no be­liefs and could be molded like a piece of un­formed clay. Pes­simists ar­gued that even if he could not be changed, some­one had to save us from his most dan­ger­ous er­rors. And there was the mat­ter of duty. Like it or not, Trump was the elected pres­i­dent, and when the pres­i­dent calls, you have a duty to serve.

Those who went into the ad­min­is­tra­tion for all these rea­sons may want to start ask­ing them­selves how all this is work­ing out. On bal­ance, are they pre­vent­ing bad de­ci­sions more than they are en­abling them? Do they save the ad­min­is­tra­tion from er­rors more than they help ex­cuse and deny them? These dilem­mas arise in ev­ery ad­min­is­tra­tion, of course, be­cause all pres­i­dents com­mit er­rors, make bad de­ci­sions and yet de­mand a loyal, stout de­fense, and even a de­gree of dis­sem­bling, from those who serve them.

Nor are we naive: Peo­ple like their jobs, like the power and rarely re­sign on mere prin­ci­ple.

This sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent, how­ever. Many of those who joined the ad­min­is­tra­tion op­posed Trump dur­ing the cam­paign, not only be­cause they dis­agreed with his poli­cies but also be­cause they thought he was un­fit for the of­fice.

This was es­pe­cially so for those in­volved with na­tional se­cu­rity. Whether they said it pub­licly or only among friends, they feared that be­cause of his tem­per­a­ment and his ig­no­rance of world af­fairs, and be­cause his view of the United States' pur­pose was di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed to theirs, Trump would make a poor if not dis­as­trous pres­i­dent and com­man­der in chief. When they agreed to work for him, they did not pre­tend that their view had changed. They sim­ply be­lieved that the coun­try would be bet­ter served with them in than with them out.

One can ar­gue that it was worth the ex­per­i­ment, but does there ever come a point when the ex­per­i­ment can be de­clared a fail­ure? So far, in less than four months, Trump has fired an FBI di­rec­tor who was lead­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of his cam­paign, passed highly clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to Rus­sian of­fi­cials, raised doubts about the United States' treaty com­mit­ments and threat­ened to charge al­lies for their de­fense, called the me­dia an en­emy of the peo­ple, and at­tacked the courts. Now he has bum­bled his way into the nam­ing of a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor. And yet those who joined the ad­min­is­tra­tion to save the coun­try still hope that they can make a dif­fer­ence. No doubt they be­lieve that for all the bad things Trump has done, it could still be worse and that if they leave, it will be worse.

Maybe so, but this seems more like wish­ful think­ing than clear­headed anal­y­sis. The odds are much bet­ter that, whether they stay or go, things are go­ing to get worse. Trump is ex­actly what they thought he would be, and for all the ef­forts to mold him into some­thing else, his core con­tin­u­ally re­sists and ob­trudes. The "adults" have been more win­dow dress­ing than guardrails.

For ev­ery bit of good the adults do, Trump un­does it with a tweet. The adults go off and re­as­sure Euro­pean al­lies that Trump re­ally does sup­port NATO, and then he ex­presses sup­port for Ma­rine Le Pen, whose elec­tion in France would have de­stroyed NATO. The adults care­fully tee him up to chal­lenge North Korea, and then he threat­ens to rip up the five-year-old trade deal with South Korea and in­sists that Seoul pay for a mis­sile de­fense shield, in vi­o­la­tion of a pre­ex­ist­ing pact. The adults pro­vide him a le­gal and plau­si­ble ra­tio­nale for fir­ing the FBI di­rec­tor, only to be made to look like fools when he sug­gests that the real rea­son was the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

There's lit­tle rea­son to hope that this is the end of it, that these four months have been a shake-out pe­riod, a rough start be­fore the pres­i­dent finds his foot­ing. The er­rors and bad de­ci­sions are too much a prod­uct of Trump's char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity.

His ba­sic poli­cies are too much like what he cam­paigned on. The mis­takes will likely con­tinue, there­fore, with ever direr con­se­quences. At what point will those who joined the ad­min­is­tra­tion to save the coun­try de­cide that they are not able to save it? Un­til now, their prin­ci­pal re­sponse to the pres­i­dent's bad de­ci­sions has been to help him carry them out, to be silent, or to ex­plain and jus­tify them af­ter the fact. At worst they have been en­ablers. At best they have al­lowed their rep­u­ta­tions for in­tegrity, their be­medaled uni­forms, their in­tel­lec­tual pedi­grees to be used as glit­ter­ing props, the false fa­cades of a Potemkin pres­i­dency.

It's hard for any­one on the out­side to judge ex­actly when the time is right for de­cent, honor­able peo­ple to call it quits. Only they can as­sess when the good they do no longer out­weighs the bad they can­not pre­vent and in which they in­evitably be­come com­plicit. But they do need to face the ques­tion. The dan­ger of all the ra­tio­nales for ser­vice is that they can jus­tify re­main­ing in of­fice for­ever, no mat­ter what Trump does.

A duty to serve? Yes. But on some very rare oc­ca­sions, there is also a duty to op­pose.

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