This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.
When the framers drafted the US Constitution, they could not have imagined anonymous op-eds written by senior members of the President’s staff, decrying the President’s behaviour.
It’s not that they did not imagine that there would be powerful dissent. In fact, they fashioned a three-legged system of checks and balances intended to curb the power of any one person over what was then the fledgling United States of America. They were determined to avoid the tyranny of a monarchy: one in which the prior king had, among other things, obstructed justice, opposed migration, and cut off trade with all parts of the world.
So how is that we find ourselves this week confronted with a very public cry for help from a senior Administration official and what does it say about US democracy?
It is indeed remarkable to think about who wrote this piece in the New York Times. But the speculation swirling through the White House and the press corps misses the point, because it is more important and more unnerving to think about who this person represents.
The author is a political appointee of the administration. In the US bureaucracy, this means that it is someone chosen by the president or his team to serve. By definition, this is not a Clinton supporter or even a Democrat. It is not someone who wants to take down the administration. It is someone who has very little to gain and very much to lose personally by blowing the whistle.
From a ‘so what’ perspective, the picture the author paints is grim. While the author makes clear that he and his colleagues are acting as the guardrails of the Republic, in the long-term, their desperate actions actually undermine the institutions created to protect the democracy.
The author makes clear that the President’s team is not doing what anyone imagines they would be doing - serving the President. To be clear, every person appointed to serve in the Executive Branch must take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” One would not know from President Trump’s behaviour, but the oath is not to the President himself. It’s usually safe to assume that loyalty to the President goes hand-in-hand with the allegiance to the Constitution. The fact that the author believes he could not fulfil his oath without publicly breaking with the President speaks volumes about the significance of the threat to the country.
Yet the implication - that a group of senior level political appointees who are not elected and are likely not Senate confirmed are effectively running the government - is deeply troubling. The author’s words, that “Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” while perhaps meant to be comforting, should give Americans pause. If the President is not overseeing their actions, who is? Allowing a shadow state to do the business of the country damages the institution of the Presidency.
Likewise, the President, as the head of the state and as the head of the armed forces, is constitutionally vested with making the final decision, particularly with respect to our relationship with foreign powers. While no one wants Trump to provoke North Korea into military action or turn over US diplomats to Russian interrogation, to suggest that he’s effectively a puppet of the bureaucracy undermines America’s leadership and power abroad.
The Republicans - who hold the majority in both chambers of Congress — have so far failed to hold the President to account. Whether it’s allegations of corruption or cosying up to dictators around the world, the majority in Congress refuses to use the host of tools available to them to curtail these actions, sacrificing the democracy to protect their own seats.
On the whole, the anonymous op-ed signals that things on the inside “are really that bad.”
It’s Congress - not members of the President’s senior staff - that now has a responsibility to act.
Amy Pope is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a former federal prosecutor and counsel in the US Senate