In 2012 I was the spokesman for Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney lambasted him in a Saturday night debate for implementing then President Barack Obama’s policies as his Ambassador to China.
Huntsman bristled at the attack and the next morning I sat with him and other aides in a green room crafting a retort ahead of the Sunday morning rematch that was to be the final debate before the New Hampshire primary. The response he delivered I believed at the time to be both politically astute (he vaulted from 5th place to 3rd in the final days of the campaign) and true to our shared view of public service as a vocation.
“Governor Romney criticized me for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy,” he said. “They’re not asking who—what political affiliation the president is. I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first. And I think that’s important to them. “
Five years later I sat in my car outside a local Oakland yoga studio grimacing at a cell phone video of Huntsman delivering essentially the same line in response to a question from his daughter Abby, a Fox News host, regarding his decision to serve as President Trump’s toady ambassador to Russia.
All of the sudden, his paeans to service left me feeling nauseated rather than inspired. So what changed?
Is my complete disdain for Donald Trump making me irrational? Or is the current head of government so destructive that the ideal of public service has become incompatible with the actual assignments of public service, when they entail propping up the president? And if it is the latter, where does that line lie?
I know where it doesn’t lie.
It doesn’t lie in unambiguous public service: military service, peace corps service, civil service. It also doesn’t lie among blustery flacks for professional politicians, whose ranks I once inhabited. Somewhere along the line in D.C. operatives began to say they are proud to “serve,” as if The Mooch’s fortnight of fabulism was somehow akin to disarming IEDs. Appearing on cable news to call the women Trump assaulted liars isn’t public service, it’s shilling. A good rule of thumb is that if you are a political appointee and there would be no material impact on the national welfare if Corey Lewandowski replaced you, you are not a public servant. You are just another red hatted, red pilled foot soldier for Donald Trump.
In between these camps is a grey zone, and frankly I’m still not sure where public service ends and self-service begins—or that I’m even qualified to know: I’ve never served my country, in uniform or otherwise. Maybe there are insights that stem from public service, which I don’t have, and which speak to this conundrum. But as time goes on, I find it harder to avoid the conclusion that the people serving in some of the country’s most important jobs are deluding themselves and deceiving others about whether the public benefits from their continued work. Indeed, they may be doing more harm than good.
Consider White House Counsel Don McGahn. Even the headline writers of the liberal, failing, Fake News New York Times seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt, declaring that McGahn is “Trying to corral Trump, while pushing GOP agenda.” That doesn’t sound so bad! As a never Trump conservative, both corralling Trump and advancing a conservative agenda sound pretty good. The report specifically indicated that McGahn stopped Donald Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and has led Trump’s remaking of the federal judiciary. So far so good.
By a similar, partial measure, embattled chief of staff John Kelly has sterling public service bona fides. Who am I to dismiss the service of a four-star general who sacrificed a son to war? Kelly is someone whose admirers truly believe he is called to serve in this job and uniquely suited to steer Trump’s worst impulses, while all I’ve been doing is tweeting and ranting on The Cuck Zone.
But as always in Trump’s orbit, the full picture is much less flattering.
If your primary concern is serving the American public, how can you stand by as the president and his race huckster chief advisor, Steve Bannon, order the detention of green-card holders in airport cells based on the dominant religious practice in their countries of origin?
How could you spend a year promoting and providing cover for a wife-beater whose vulnerability to blackmail tanked his security review? Why would you lie to a soldier’s widow about the handling of the death of her husband, and then defame the widow’s congresswoman, simply to soothe a boorish president’s fragile ego? How could you sit silently listening to the president praise some “very fine people” marching at a white nationalist rally? What public need is served by ignoring the likelihood that the top national security official in the government is actually an agent of our greatest geopolitical foe. (This is a real life thing that happened in our government last year, not a far-fetched plot line on Scandal.)
These do not seem to be the actions of people who are chiefly interested in serving American citizens.
And while even some of Trump’s critics will respond that these people are better than their alternatives, I am left to wonder if that’s really true.
What would happen if these staffers and their peers in sensitive political roles put the country over Trump and revealed what they knew? Would that not be better for the republic than the status quo?
If you are to believe former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who says that we should “take everything [we’ve] heard and multiply it by 50,” or Republican Senator Bob Corker’s assessment that Trump is a clear and present danger to the republic, it seems there are a lot of whistles yet to be blown.
Who would be a more credible messenger that the country needs to move on from President Trump than the sober general who has been “in the room” as Trump flirted with disaster?
Who could better convey the President’s willingness to obstruct justice than the White House’s top lawyer, who was ordered to fire the special counsel. The same lawyer who was first warned that the national security advisor was likely compromised by the Russians (and the Turkish for good measure).
It sure seems to me that their testimony would be rather powerful public service. Instead, Mr. McGahn is taking his star turn this week on the dais at CPAC, and I don’t expect him to take that opportunity to speak truth to power.
If you find that unconvincing, and maintain the view that the best “service” case for Kelly and McGahn, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and others, is that they are doing their best to prevent a catastrophe, doesn’t granting that by definition suggest that anyone in the government who is not actively preventing catastrophe is enabling it?
I’m not the only one who harbors these doubts. The legal scholar Jack Goldsmith, who served at a tumultuous time in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, argued last year that it would be very difficult for public servants with such proximity to the president to serve a president like Trump with integrity.
“[Trump’s advisers] can tell themselves that they are serving the nation—for example, in their important work selecting judges and enforcing ethics rules—beyond just helping the President. But much of the work of these officials amounts to little more than enabling and protecting the President, personally and politically. That becomes a problem when the enabling and protecting comes in the service of mendacity or in a way inextricable from mendacity.
The sense that “being in the arena,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it, is a universal good is a popular one among many conservative political activists and campaign operatives. It is certainly one that has resonated with me. As we waver and worry about how this heinous experiment in staffing a government led by the worst of us will play out, they’d be wise to heed his admonition about the true meaning of patriotism.
“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
May that message prevail.