Donald Trump and Nikki Haley
Dear Commons Community,
Yesterday I almost blogged about Nikki Haley’s new book, With All Due Respect, until I read several excerpts and realized that I was not in agreement with one of her basic premises that White House staffers owe allegiance to the President. I was uncomfortable with this position thinking that all members of the federal government owe their first allegiance to the country. Today, Michelle Cottle, a member of the New York Times editorial board, has an opinion piece that takes a similar position. Cottle’s premise is that it’s not that top White House aides sought to undermine President Trump, it’s that they thought they had to. Below is Cottle’s entire piece. I agree with her position fully.
New York Times
Nikki Haley Ignores the Real Problem in the White House
November 12, 2019
Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, has been causing quite a stir with her new memoir, in which she recounts how, during her time in the Trump administration, other top officials lobbied her to help them undermine the president.
In “With All Due Respect,” Ms. Haley writes that Rex Tillerson, then the secretary of state, and John Kelly, then the White House chief of staff, considered some of Mr. Trump’s policies so harebrained that they ignored his directives and began recruiting other aides to derail his agenda.
“Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” she writes. “Tillerson went on to tell me the reason he resisted the president’s decisions was because, if he didn’t, people would die.”
Ms. Haley makes clear that what disturbed her was Mr. Tillerson’s and Mr. Kelly’s arrogance. “It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The president didn’t know what he was doing.”
Ms. Haley went further in an interview with Norah O’Donnell of CBS News that aired Sunday, lecturing her former colleagues on how they should have handled such disputes. “Instead of saying that to me, they should have been saying that to the president, not asking me to join them on their sidebar plan,” she said. “It should have been, go tell the president what your differences are and quit if you don’t like what he’s doing. But to undermine a president is really a very dangerous thing, and it goes against the Constitution and it goes against what the American people want. And it was offensive.”
Rather than being upset that top aides were conspiring to undermine Mr. Trump, she really should be more concerned that we have a president whom top aides saw as a threat to the country.
It’s tempting to dismiss Ms. Haley — who is thought to harbor presidential ambitions — as an opportunist trying to sound high-minded while still remaining in the good graces of Mr. Trump and, more important, of the Republican voters who adore him. In recent interviews, she has struggled to at once criticize and rationalize some of Mr. Trump’s more outrageous behavior. For instance, she told CBS that, while she considered it “not appropriate” when the president told four Democratic congresswomen, three of them born in the United States, to “go back” to their home countries, she said she could “appreciate where he was coming from” in his frustration with their criticisms.
Ms. Haley has also staked out a dubious defense of the president in the impeachment investigation. “So, do I think it’s not good practice to talk to foreign governments about investigating Americans? Yes,” she told The Washington Post. “Do I think the president did something that warrants impeachment? No, because the aid flowed. And, in turn, the Ukrainians didn’t follow up with the investigation.”
As Ms. Haley sees it, the president may have tried to subvert national security for his own political end, but he failed, so where’s the harm?
On one key point, however, Ms. Haley is correct: If Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Kelly believed that Mr. Trump posed a serious threat to the national interest, they should have refused to continue enabling him, resigned and gone public with their concerns.
The same could be said of the other professed “adults in the room” who have told themselves that they serve the public by moderating Mr. Trump’s worst impulses.
It’s not as though Ms. Haley is the first person to tell of Trump aides working to contain their boss. In 2017, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Tillerson to help drop a criminal investigation of a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who was a client of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Mr. Tillerson refused to interfere with a criminal probe and immediately conveyed his concerns to Mr. Kelly, according to multiple news reports.
Apparently this was not a first for Mr. Tillerson. “So often,” he said at a public appearance in December, “the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it.’ And I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
In his 2018 book “Fear,” Bob Woodward detailed how Gary Cohn, then the president’s top economic adviser, removed a letter from Mr. Trump’s desk to prevent the president from pulling the United States out of a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Cohn later plotted a similar theft to prevent Mr. Trump from withdrawing from Nafta.
Mr. Woodward also wrote of an episode from April 2017 in which Mr. Trump called Jim Mattis, then the secretary of defense, and ordered the assassination of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, in retaliation for Mr. Assad’s chemical attack on his own people. Mr. Mattis ignored the president’s order and had the Pentagon draw up options for airstrikes — which is what Mr. Trump eventually went with.
Mr. Woodward termed such efforts “an administrative coup d’état.”
Then there’s Anonymous, the White House insider who wrote an Op-Ed essay for The Times in September 2018, followed by a book to be released later this month, positioning the author as part of a noble “resistance” within the administration. These officials supported many of the president’s policies, Anonymous wrote in the essay:
But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.
That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.
This kind of thinking may help the Tillersons and Kellys sleep better at night. But it is a weak excuse for propping up a president who continues to erode democratic norms and the rule of law.
Gary Edson, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, recently noted in The Atlantic that “by prioritizing their political agenda over the danger Trump poses, the members of the putative resistance within the administration put party and personal gain before principle and country.”
As for Anonymous’s claim that some aides even considered invoking the 25th Amendment but were loath to spark a constitutional crisis, Mr. Edson is not impressed: “Of course, that is precisely what Trump himself has now done. Yet, the anonymous author still hides in the shadows, just as congressional Republicans hide behind process, both implicitly propping up a morally bankrupt regime.”
If members of the Trump administration need a role model in courage, they don’t need to listen to Ms. Haley. They can look to the administration officials stepping forward to testify before Congress in the impeachment investigation. People like Bill Taylor and Alexander Vindman have put their reputations, careers and personal safety on the line to bring Mr. Trump’s misbehavior out of the shadows.
They are precisely the kind of truth tellers that Ms. Haley should be praising.