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An insider's lament about Trump serves no public good

PONNURU

Ramesh Ponnuru

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Friday, September 7, 2018

People write op-eds for all kinds of reasons. Some do it for recognition, some to draw attention to an issue they think has been overlooked. We can rule out both motives for a splashy New York Times op-ed, written by an anonymous someone whom the Times assures us is a senior Trump administration official, and who calls himself part of a "quiet resistance within the administration."

So what was the point of it?

Was it to inform the public that President Donald Trump often makes "half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back"? Anyone who is capable of reaching that realization has already done so.

Was it to inform us that many people inside the administration consider Trump "erratic" and dishonorable? We knew that, too, from several thousand news stories quoting anonymous administration officials — almost certainly including this one.

Was it to reassure the public that Trump is being restrained by his own aides? ("Americans should know that there are adults in the room.") If so, it's not very reassuring. The message of the op-ed amounts, after all, to saying that the president is unfit for his office, so unfit that even many of his employees see it, and that they are trying to work around it.

Was it to share the news that "there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment" to remove Trump from office? But this is too vague to constitute news. Did one assistant secretary invoke the idea in the spirit of gallows humor, or did a few secretaries meet to discuss the idea seriously?

Was the purpose to make opponents of the administration think more kindly of the people working for it? They, too, are aware of the phenomenon of Trump officials who have serious reservations about him and are trying to limit the damage, as they see it, from his presidency.

If these opponents consider this kind of ambivalent service a morally sound course of action, they thought so already. If they think it is cowardly, an anonymous op-ed won't change their mind.

I think working for Trump while seeking to thwart some of his impulses is defensible. It's not "overt defiance of presidential authority," as one critic of the op-ed has put it, especially when the president is so lackadaisical about enforcing discipline among his underlings.

In any presidency, aides want to steer the president toward the impulses they consider better. What differentiates this administration from past ones is the contempt for the president's character that animates so many of its employees.

The Trump aide who feels the president is unfit for office must make, and continually update, a judgment whether it will do more good to influence the administration or do it a marginal bit of political harm by leaving it in public.

But he should be aware that it is enormously psychologically tempting to conclude that his own presence in office is crucial in averting disaster. If Trump's aides were making this judgment free of self-interest or delusion, surely someone by now would have a public resignation on principle.

What can't be justified, on any calculation I can perform, is how this op-ed advances the public good. It will make the president more aggrieved and less likely to credit wise counsel than ever while changing no one's mind.

Perhaps it has at least achieved catharsis for its author. But there is already more than enough self-expression coming out of this administration.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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