When saying no to a president saves democracy

The Mueller report leaves a shadow over President Trump about possible obstruction of justice, but it also offers insights on how acts of conscience can turn events.

In a June 2018 photo, then-White House Counsel Don McGahn sits behind President Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House.

Few Americans will read the public portions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. That’s OK, as the two main conclusions are well known: The Trump campaign did not collude with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and yet President Donald Trump tried to influence the investigation. Congress will now decide if the president did obstruct justice. A few parts of the report, however, offer a lesson on how individual acts of conscience can make a big difference in a democracy.

Mr. Mueller praises some of those around Mr. Trump for standing up for rule of law. “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mr. Mueller wrote.

A key person was former White House counsel Donald McGahn (pronounced “McGann”). Twice the president told him to fire the special prosecutor, and twice Mr. McGahn refused, perhaps saving American democracy from a constitutional crisis. Mr. Mueller found Mr. McGahn, who resigned last October, to be “a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House.”

It is not easy to say no to an American president. One famous case occurred in 1980 when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opposed President Jimmy Carter’s military operation in Iran to rescue American hostages. Mr. Vance resigned, and the operation failed as he forewarned.

In such cases, it takes moral courage for a public servant to act on principle, such as the ideal that justice should be nonpolitical. Mr. McGahn’s actions are an echo of one taken by Elliot Richardson, the attorney general who in 1973 refused President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor probing the Watergate scandal.

“The more I thought about it,” Mr. Richardson wrote later, “the clearer it seemed to me that public confidence in the investigation would depend on its being independent not only in fact but in appearance.” In 1998 he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mr. McGahn’s example of moral independence is particularly useful as the United States continues to battle a core reason for the Mueller probe: Russian attempts to persuade Americans of false stories via social media. Defying such propaganda requires an inner compass to discover what is true and to act on it. Voters, like public servants, have a duty beyond allegiance to a person or to accepting what they read online. They must live by the values that bind a democratic society. Sometimes that means saying no.

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