Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the last week, we have learned that unelected appointees of the executive branch are openly thwarting the policy desires of the President of the United States — in some cases anonymously.
To the political left, these people are heroes, doing what must be done “to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office,” as the anonymous “senior official” in the Trump administration put it in a controversial op-ed published Wednesday in the New York Times.
The op-ed writer says he or she has taken these steps because the President is acting “in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”
These statements are alarming, of course, because of the “senior” level status of the government official purported to have written them.
But they are also alarming because an anonymous, unelected government appointee is substituting his or her judgment for that of the duly elected leader of a constitutional republic.
Nowhere in the op-ed does the appointee allege criminal or treasonous behavior on the part of the President. Rather, this person says the President is not faithful to “ideals long espoused by conservatives,” and conducts meetings that “veer off topic and off the rails.”
While I agree that unfaithfulness to conservative principles and bad meeting habits are annoying, are they grounds for the unelected to put themselves above the will of the people? Voters knew exactly what they were getting with Trump in both the GOP primary and in the general election. He has only recently become a Republican and doesn’t feel particularly bound by the party’s traditional platform, as evidenced by his stance on free trade (which the op-ed author doesn’t like), among other things.
In truth, this appointee has a duty to resign his or her post and report whatever egregious behavior he or she has personally seen to Congress and the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That’s appropriate behavior in an orderly republic, as opposed to this political and policy vigilantism that runs contrary to the remedies created for us by the founding fathers.
Consider that the appointee is hiding behind an anonymous op-ed while still collecting a paycheck and enjoying the perks of a senior post in a federal office. Forgive me for concluding that the motivation for anonymity is selfish — an insurance policy to protect against a resume stain should Trump wind up accused of a crime, impeached, or beaten in the 2020 election.
Set aside whether you love or hate Donald Trump and his policies. Is it right for unelected people to make decisions for him? Is this a signal we want to send the rest of the world, that constitutional order has fallen apart in the world’s most durable democracy? Because that’s precisely the destabilizing effect this op-ed will have on America’s standing in the eyes of our friends … and our enemies.
You could forgive actual voters for wondering whether they matter anymore. In addition to the anonymous appointee who is apparently among those running an inside resistance to the Trump presidency, we have learned from our previews of Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book that White House staffers literally stole papers from the President’s desk to keep him from reading or signing them because they said they worried he would make ill-considered decisions that would damage the country.
In Woodward’s case, we know the names of some of the staffers involved in what he calls “an administrative coup d’etat.” Those who stole papers from the Oval Office must be subpoenaed by Congress to explain themselves, because we deserve to know whether they have a good reason beyond just policy differences with their boss.
Some are drawing comparisons between this op-ed writer and John Dean, President Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel, who turned on his boss. But at least Dean had the honor to do so in his own name. Attaching a name to these grievances would carry more weight, because they would be backed by some measure of courage.
I agree with the op-ed writer and a few of the President’s former advisers outed by Woodward that some of Trump’s impulses on trade and foreign policy are “misguided.” And like the op-ed writer, I am but one voter in a pool of nearly 139 million who turned out in the 2016 election.
Our democracy is based upon us all agreeing to abide by the results of the Electoral College in presidential elections, and that goes for everyone – including people who work for the federal government in unelected capacities.
The founding fathers provided three tools to stop a runaway presidency – elections, impeachment, and invoking the 25th amendment. The Times op-ed writer admits that no one in the Trump administration “wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis” by invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president. This tells me that the writer’s concerns aren’t widely held enough to actually rally a constitutionally allowable coup against the President.
That leaves impeachment, which I suspect House Democrats will pursue come January if they take over the House of Representatives via elections in November. Strangely, Democratic leaders must not believe impeachment to be a winning message, as they continuously try to tamp down talk of it on the campaign trail, despite the desire of their base to toss Trump in the Potomac River.
Donald Trump has certainly done some things that are not defensible, including his comments about white supremacists after Charlottesville and his disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin. His administration has also done things, as the op-ed writer admits, that have been successful for the nation (although the writer questions whether the President was responsible for any of the positive developments).
But whether one agrees or disagrees with any personal or policy flaw of the President, the actions of this unelected, appointee op-ed writer —and whomever else has joined this person in an internal “resistance” to this President — send a terrible signal. The author complains that Trump is undermining institutions, but I am not sure the op-ed writer is doing anything to strengthen them by acting contrary to the Constitution.
The writer would do well to view the situation through the prism of an average, middle-American voter who selected Trump less than two years ago. That person is likely to believe that the economy is humming, that optimism is rising, that the President is appointing good judges, and that even the Congress is operating efficiently in what is supposedly a chaotic environment.
There are better ways to handle this beyond signaling that elections and our constitution have lost their usefulness as the means to enact change. Perhaps allowing an election to pass, so that actual voters can consider the facts and render a judgment, is more prudent than circumventing the established constitutional order that has served our republic well.