Opinion: Internal 'resistance' to Donald Trump is scary
The new Bob Woodward book "Fear" details an internal "resistance" acting to prevent US President Trump from wreaking even more havoc. Some may find this check on Trump comforting, but, for Michael Knigge, it is a worry.
The top economic adviser to the president swipes a letter from his boss's desk to prevent him from exiting crucial trade agreements with other countries. The head of the Defense Department ignores the president's order to kill the leader of a hostile foreign country. The president's chief of staff describes his boss as "unhinged" and an "idiot" and says it is pointless to try to convince him of anything.
This does not describe events occurring in the presidential palace of some remote autocratic leader.
This is happening in the United States, "the oldest nation with a constitutional government in which the people elect their own government and representatives."
To be fair, the White House and some of the people described in the above passages from legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's new book contested the actions and remarks attributed to them while Woodward stood by them.
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Woodward over Trump
When one stacks Woodward's decadeslong journalistic record against this White House's record of falsehoods, obfuscations and outright lies since Inauguration Day, it is easy to pick a side. What's more, while Woodward's bombshell book details new instances of a dysfunctional administration and a dangerously incompetent president, similar episodes have been reported repeatedly in the past by multiple outlets and in other books.
Last week's unprecedented New York Times op-ed in which an unnamed senior Trump administration official declared that he or she is part of an internal "resistance" serves as an additional confirmation: There really seems to be a group of people who are actively trying to prevent US President Donald Trump from carrying out ideas or policies that they feel are deeply ill-advised or outright dangerous.
DW's Michael Knigge, US correspondent
But while there clearly is a compelling — if not urgent — need to counter Trump's more reckless legislation, stealing letters from his desk, ignoring his orders and venting behind his back is not the way to do that.
Firstly, because from what one can judge from the outside, this internal "resistance" has not been very effective in curbing Trump's worst impulses. The administration's inhumane immigration policy that climaxed in the separation of migrant children from their parents, the undermining of the transatlantic relationship, the imposition of tariffs on key allies Canada and Europe, the nixing of the Iran nuclear deal, just to name a few — all were carried out despite the existence of this internal "resistance." This means either that the group is not very effective or that it actually agrees with key tenets of Trump's "America First" approach.
Appointed by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama in 2015, McGurk was the US envoy to the coalition fighting "Islamic State" terrorists and was influential in shaping US policy in northern Syria. He was due to end his tenure in February 2019 but stepped down days after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, largely due to Trump's sudden decision to take US soldiers out of Syria.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly announced his retirement in late December after Trump ignored his advice and announced the complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Mattis' resignation letter laid bare the growing divide between them, criticizing his boss for his treatment of allies. Mattis was a keen supporter of NATO and traditional US alliances, putting him at odds with Trump.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned in December as pressure mounted from more than a dozen investigations into various aspects of his tenure and private business. The former Navy SEAL was a leading advocate of expanding domestic energy production, opening up vast swathes of the country for exploration.
In December, Trump announced that John Kelly, his third chief of staff, would step down at the end of 2018. He had been brought in to establish order in the Trump White House but found the job arduous, and his relationship with his boss soured. The retired four-star Marine Corps general will be replaced by budget director Mick Mulvaney, after several candidates turned down the job.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired in November after several months of abuse from Trump. Despite being an early supporter, he attracted the wrath of his boss early on by recusing himself from the Justice Department investigation into collusion. He was replaced with a loyalist who shares Trump's concerns about the investigation. He was a key figure in rolling back many of Obama's legacies.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, one of the administration's few high-profile women, announced her resignation in October. She said her resignation was long-planned, but the announcement took most senior politicians by surprise. She will stay on until the end of 2018. She lent international legitimacy to the administration as she attempted to provide a coherent message.
The White House director of legislative affairs announced he would leave his post effective July 20, 2018. Short, one of the administration's longest-serving members, was also one of its most visible, pushing Trump's legislative agenda on TV. But his work was frequently undercut by the president, who complained about deals the team had negotiated, preferring instead to go it alone without them.
It remained a mystery to many how Pruitt could hang on for so long, but the president seemed to like him. Many on the left cringed at his every move as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was also embroiled in various ethics scandals. Nevertheless, Trump took to Twitter to thank Pruitt for doing an "outstanding job" at the EPA.
One of Trump's top lawyers in the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, Cobb said he simply wanted to retire. But many believe he was forced out by Trump and others in his legal team for his lack of aggression in Robert Mueller's Russia probe. Cobb was said to have been increasingly uneasy about Trump's Twitter attacks on Mueller.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, who had worked for George W. Bush, was reportedly pushed out in the shakeup that occurred after John Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. It is said that Bolton had no issues with Bossert, but that he wanted his own team in place. The White House thanked Bossert for his "patriotic service" and wished him well.
Though the White House said Shulkin resigned, he says he was fired. A holdover from the Obama administration, he was appointed to run the Department of Veteran's Affairs by Trump. His downfall came amid a travel expense scandal involving his wife. He criticized the atmosphere in the administration as "toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive," claiming he was the victim of political intrigue.
In a tweet on March 22, 2018, US President Trump announced he was replacing H.R. McMaster with John Bolton as his national security adviser. A respected general, McMaster said he would retire from the US army and public service. McMaster's departure was not a complete surprise, as he and Trump are reported to have had conflicting views on a number of US policies.
A former Exxon executive, Tillerson had served as secretary of state for a little over a year. Donald Trump ousted Tillerson in order to form a "new team" ahead of talks with North Korea, adding that he and Tillerson "disagreed on things." The relationship between them is said to have deteriorated after Tillerson reportedly called Trump a "moron" in October 2017.
A Goldman Sachs veteran, Gary Cohn served as Donald Trump's top economic adviser at the head of the National Economic Council. He helped push through controversial tax reforms in 2017. However, Cohn stepped down in March 2018 after failing to persuade Trump to give up his idea of imposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
Hope Hicks resigned from her post as the White House communications director in late February 2018. A day before resigning, she testified before US lawmakers on Russian interference. She admitted to telling "white lies" for Donald Trump, but not related to Russia. The White House insisted her resignation was not linked to the testimony. The 29-year-old was among Trump's closest aides.
The White House staff secretary handed in his resignation after his ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse. Despite resigning, Rob Porter denied the allegations as "simply false." Trump initially defended Porter, and the US media questioned how Porter passed his background check for the job. Recently, reports surfaced of a romance between Porter and Trump's longtime aide Hope Hicks.
He played a key role in getting Donald Trump into the White House, but even chief strategist Stephen Bannon was ousted within a year. Bannon was a champion of economic nationalism and Trump's "America First" strategy. After the fallout of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville mid-August, Bannon agreed to leave the administration.
The 53-year-old former hedge fund investor nicknamed the "Mooch" was communications director for just 10 days. The colorful New Yorker filled a dream role that had been vacant for months, but was forced out on the same day that straight-shooting former Marine Corps general John Kelly became chief of staff. Trump was displeased with his infamous expletive-laden rant against other senior staff.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, resigned in July 2017 after clashing with the White House over Trump's complicated financial holdings. Shaub reportedly called Trump's administration a "laughing stock."
Reince Priebus, former White House chief of staff, was forced out just six months into his tenure after a public feud with Anthony Scaramucci, the White House communications director. Priebus was reportedly among those West Wing staffers who had opposed hiring Scaramucci.
Sean Spicer, who had a fraught relationship with the president and the press, resigned after telling Trump he vehemently disagreed with the selection of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director.
Michael Dubke, former White House communications director, was asked to leave in May 2017 over what was perceived as his poor handling of allegations of Russian involvement in the US election.
US President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey — allegedly over how he handled the Clinton emails investigation. Critics, however, believe the FBI's probe into Trump's campaign ties with Russia was the real reason.
Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned in February 2017 after revelations that he had discussed US sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the US before Trump took office, and then misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
Taking matters into their own hands
Secondly and more importantly, the mere existence of an internal "resistance" is deeply disconcerting. This group has become convinced that the body set up as the constitutional check on the presidency, Congress, is not capable or willing, of fulfilling its role. Therefore, these influential members of the Trump administration have concluded after working with and for him that he is so detrimental to, and dangerous for, the country and the world, that they — literally — have to take matters into their own hands.
Leaving aside the fact that it takes a certain amount of hubris for the members of the internal "resistance" to think that by engaging in acts of subterfuge they can have a more significant impact than by resigning and speaking up, this behavior is constitutionally questionable.
Read more: Donald Trump slams Bob Woodward book
What does it tell Americans and the world that unelected US officials feel it is justified to engage in clandestine acts to try and prevent the elected president of the United States from doing more damage than he has already done?
It sends the message that the political situation is so dire, that the long-established constitutional mechanisms to control the executive of the world's most powerful democracy do not work anymore. And that message may even be correct. Put differently: In his less than two years in office Donald Trump has already undermined the political norms and processes to such an extent that the normal checks against presidential excesses have failed.
Against that backdrop, the accounts given by Trump administration officials to Woodward and the unnamed New York Times op-ed could also be interpreted not as reassurances to the public that there are "adults in the room" who will rein Trump in, but as a plea for help.
But it is difficult to see where that help should come from. As the "resistance", according to the op-ed rightly concluded, trying to remove President Trump via the 25th amendment is not only extremely difficult, but such a process would almost certainly tear the country even further apart. That also applies to the idea of an impeachment of Trump, and to a lesser extent to the hope that the special counsel probe into Russian election meddling will lead to the ouster of the president. All of these options are highly complex, highly unusual, highly divisive and, if used, would play out over a long time.
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Restoring the faith
As the anonymous op-ed author rightly stated, the most plausible, most immediate and least divisive check on the Trump administration could come from the American voters in the upcoming election. A Democratic takeover of one, or even both chambers of congress will not end the Trump presidency. It will also not undo the harm already done and prevent future damage done by this president.
But it could at least make it much more difficult and costly for Donald Trump and his acolytes in the Republican Party to advance his pernicious agenda than the haphazard path taken by internal "resistance." And, at least as important, it could help restore the hope that Trump can be restrained in in ways that strengthen, not weaken, the faith in America's political system.
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