After siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence services, President Trump found himself on the receiving end of some of the harshest intraparty criticism of his time in office. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory” while former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said it was “disgraceful and detrimental.” Even Fox News, the president’s favorite channel, found itself unable to fully stand by the president, with anchor Neil Cavuto calling the performance “disgusting.”
This outrage led to calls that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats or Secretary of Defense James Mattis should resign in protest and reminders of how Trump began his term attacking the intelligence community, including comparing them to Nazis. One member of the administration reportedly replied “Good question” when asked by CNN if anyone would resign over the summit press conference. Others dismissed the idea. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said that a resignation from Mattis or Coats would be counterproductive, saying “It’s cutting your nose off in spite of your face when you have people who at least are giving good advice, whether the president takes it or not.”
As of Wednesday morning, no one had stepped down over Trump’s comments, but this again raises the question that many have asked throughout Trump’s term: Why stick around for the abuse from your boss and scorn from much of the public and the mainstream media, even longtime friends, possibly even your spouse? It is impossible to overstate the disdain for Trump and anyone associated with him in elite circles in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz doesn’t even have a job in the administration but recently complained that his endorsements of Trump’s legal position in the Russia probe are costing him prized invitations to cocktail parties on Martha’s Vineyard. What could possibly make it worth enduring such humiliation? Attorney General Jeff Sessions probably isn’t staying in his job out of loyalty to the president who has repeatedly bullied and taunted him. Does he stay out of a sense of duty to the nation, or loyalty to the administration’s policies? Should Coats remain despite being repeatedly undercut by the Oval Office because his replacement might not be as competent — or could resigning give him a larger platform to push back against the administration?
John McLaughlin, who served as both deputy and acting director of the CIA, told Yahoo News that government officials have been in a difficult situation since Trump took office.
“I think it’s a complicated question,” McLaughlin said when asked what factors a senior leader in the intelligence community should weigh when considering whether or not to resign on principle. “It’s the dilemma that has dogged people since this administration was created, which is: Do you serve in order to professionalize government in the midst of incredible partisan battling, or do you risk your reputation in doing so? And I think that’s the dilemma that most people struggle with. On balance I think we have to hope that qualified expert people that are manning important positions remain in them, because to vacate them opens up an imponderable question of what comes next.”
Michael Morell, who also served as deputy and acting CIA director, told CBS News that he thought Trump’s comments perhaps warranted a resignation from Coats.
“I do think that senior officials in the intelligence community need to ask themselves whether they can continue to serve this president and represent the men and women of the intelligence community in a way that’s positive,” said Morell.
The biggest public push for resignations prior to the Russia comments came last August when Trump failed to condemn white supremacists following a rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a counterprotester. Trump repeatedly blamed both sides, with the now-infamous comment that “there were very fine” people among the neo-Nazis who marched in support of a Confederate monument. About 300 Yale classmates of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he had a “moral obligation” to resign after Trump “declared himself a sympathizer with groups whose values are antithetical to those values we consider fundamental to our sacred honor as Americans.” Mnuchin, who is Jewish, declined to step down and said that the White House did not support white supremacist organizations. Former economic adviser Gary Cohn, who is also Jewish, reportedly prepared a resignation letter after Trump’s Charlottesville comments.
“I have come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position,” said Cohn in an interview with the Financial Times in which he said the White House “can and must do better” to condemn hate groups. Cohn stayed on, focused on the Republican tax cut plan, which was signed into law in December, before eventually stepping down in March. The issue that pushed him over the edge wasn’t Trump’s equivocal response to white nationalism, but his tariff policy.
Multiple members of Trump’s team have been forced out amid scandal, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (over flight expenses), Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin (same) and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (many, many things). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired after foreign policy disagreements with Trump and reportedly calling the president a “moron.” There were calls from Democratic lawmakers for Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen to resign over the policy that separated migrant parents from their children at the border, but Nielsen has remained despite also being targeted by protests from activists.
It is rare, but not unprecedented, for Cabinet-level officials to resign over a principle. Perhaps the best-known examples are Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The fallout from the “Saturday night massacre” eventually contributed to Nixon’s own resignation. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned from President Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1915 over Wilson’s policy toward Germany in World War I; Bryan favored strict neutrality and believed, correctly, that Wilson’s policies would result in America entering the conflict. President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, stepped down in 1980 over the administration’s risky plans to rescue American hostages being held in Iran. Secretary of Labor John Dunlop quit in 1976 after President Gerald Ford vetoed a bill that would have expanded the rights of picketing construction workers.
While some have called on Mattis to resign over Trump’s comments, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, vice president of education at the Association of the U.S. Army, told Yahoo News he thought Trump’s comments “were affecting the intelligence community a lot more than the armed forces.”
“I don’t think this would trickle down to the U.S. Army,” said Swan. “For most people [in the Army] they listen to this and then they get up in the morning and they drive on with their mission. So I think this is better left to others in the government. I don’t think you’re going to get much from senior military leaders. Maybe, maybe, at the chairman level. But these guys are really so nonpartisan that I think they’ll just stay and muddle through.”
Swan referred to the tension over then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki accurately warning Congress in 2003 that “several hundred thousand” troops would be required to stabilize Iraq, a remark that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office described as “wildly off the mark.” “That was a classic case [where] the secretary had a much different view of things. Shinseki was marginalized, chastised, demonized,” Swan said, adding that Rumsfeld attempted unsuccessfully to force Shinseki out of the Army altogether. Shinseki refused to be pressured into resigning “because he felt — and I know Shinseki very well — that they’ll get someone else who will be more compliant. They’ll get someone who will not have the best interests of the U.S. Army or our nation at heart. So I think that’s how these people [in senior positions] look at it… That’s what they wrestle with. They wrestle with ‘Do no harm’ — ‘I need to stay to protect my soldiers.’ I think that’s how Shinseki looked at this: ‘I cannot abandon my soldiers.’”
Republicans in Washington have proposed legislation that could limit some of Trump’s executive power, a stronger approach than the usual practice of issuing strongly worded but toothless statements when they’re upset with the White House. A bill from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would put harsher sanctions in place against Russia if it interfered in the 2018 election, with the verification coming from the director of national intelligence, not the White House.
Time will tell if the criticism of Trump’s election interference comments lingers or if it dissipates as it did in the aftermath of Charlottesville, as administration officials balance the power and access they enjoy and the opportunity to advance policies they support against the potential damage to their reputations. The discussions of stepping down will then be tabled, but only until the next outrage occurs and calls for a high-ranking official to resign in protest inevitably follow.
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