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 advisor to the president swipes a letter from his boss’ 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.
Woodward over Trump
But when one stacks Woodward’s decades-long 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.
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.
Taking matters into their own hands
But, 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.
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.
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.