White House 'resistance': act of protection, or unadvisable 'soft coup'?

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
President Trump walks out of the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Aug. 31, 2018.
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“Who wrote it?” That’s the first question many people ask about the anonymous New York Times opinion piece, published on Wednesday, in which a senior administration official outlines a “quiet resistance movement” among President Trump’s own staffers. But another query – “Is this right?” – might be more important in this case. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Trump’s policies, he is the president of the United States, duly elected by voters under a process outlined in the Constitution. With the exception of Vice President Mike Pence, the officials of Trump’s administration were not. In any White House, a president is not a potentate. Cabinet members have their own agenda. Senior officials can delay policy debates, offer option lists that highlight their preferred course of action, and slow-roll implementation. That’s normal. But stealing papers off the president’s desk so he won’t sign them, as outlined in Bob Woodward’s upcoming book? That’s not normal at all. Trump’s critics think internal resistance to a chief executive they consider arbitrary, uninformed, and capricious may be the best thing for America. But Trump supporters question whether such resistance is a low-level, slow-rolling, soft coup.

Why We Wrote This

The release of a scathing opinion piece from an anonymous White House staffer has set the nation’s political gossip mill into full gear. But the bigger question is what the report might mean for America.

After The New York Times published an anonymous opinion piece from a “senior administration official” outlining an alleged quiet resistance to President Trump among his own top advisors, the first question that rattled through Washington’s political world was, “Who wrote it?”

But perhaps the more important query, one that gradually dawned on many after gleefully chewing over possible authors, might be this: “What’s going on here? Are these people really doing the right thing?” 

The op-ed article by an unnamed Trump staffer asserted that a loose team of “unsung heroes” who believe Mr. Trump to be dangerously unstable are secretly working to block the president’s “worst inclinations.” Combined with revelations from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on the administration, “Fear,” an extraordinary portrait is emerging of a president hemmed in by his own handlers, unaware when some of his orders are ignored, changed, or delayed.

Why We Wrote This

The release of a scathing opinion piece from an anonymous White House staffer has set the nation’s political gossip mill into full gear. But the bigger question is what the report might mean for America.

On its face, the op-ed seems to be an attempt to reassure voters who may be concerned about Trump’s impulses. But the anonymity of the writer raises credibility questions. What’s the real motive? Why not go public? Won’t revealing this effort, if it truly exists, infuriate the president and defeat its purpose? 

And if there really is an anti-Trump resistance in top levels of the administration itself, is that anti-democratic as well? After all, Trump faced the voters and was elected president under the rules established by the US Constitution. All other top officials in his administration, with the exception of Vice President Mike Pence, were not.

“Soft coup” is not the phrase to use to describe the current situation, says Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But it’s definitely not normal pushback by presidential advisors, either.

“It’s definitely something we don’t have a name for.... The larger point is, this is not the way things are supposed to work,” says Professor Saunders.

Complementary narratives

The op-ed, published Wednesday, was submitted to the Times prior to the first appearance of stories detailing similar revelations in Mr. Woodward’s upcoming book, according to editors. That means its appearance in conjunction with the publicity attracted by “Fear” may be a coincidence. But if that’s the case, it’s one the author probably does not regret, as the opinion piece and the book reflect and in some cases amplify each other’s themes. 

The author of the opinion piece says he or she shares some of Trump’s goals, and feels that in tax reform, deregulation, and military spending, the administration has not gotten enough credit for positive moves. But after that, it’s brutal, calling the president “amoral,” “erratic,” and “reckless.”

“Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails,” the author writes.

The piece is a little vague about what specific actions the alleged internal Trump resistance is taking to head off dangerous presidential action. But the writer does describe a “two-track presidency,” in which Trump may communicate one policy in public, but officials pursue another offstage. The example the article uses is Russia, where the president has treated Russian president Vladimir Putin with deference, but US actions in the wake of the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain have included sanctions and diplomatic expulsions.

Why write all this anonymously? If your purpose is to affect policy and change presidential behavior, a public complaint and resignation on the part of a high official might seem more effective. Anonymity, in effect, allows the writer to position him or herself as an anti-Trumper for post administration purposes, when all can be revealed, while remaining in office for now.

After all, an anonymous outline of an inside anti-Trump effort plays right into stereotypes of the “deep state” of bureaucratic lifers who are supposedly organizing against the presidency. The author is clearly sensitive to this, saying that the efforts are the work of a “steady state” instead. 

The problem is a sizable portion of the public, which disproportionately supports Trump, truly believes a “deep state” exists. That is the backdrop against which the present crisis occurs, making it different from past instances of alleged presidential incompetence or disability, according to University of Virginia historian Brian Balogh, co-host of the BackStory history podcast.

“Whatever the intentions of the anonymous NYT op-ed writer(s), the consequence will be to reinforce the beliefs of those who subscribe to such conspiracies,” writes Professor Balogh in an emailed response to questions. 

Infighting? Or something more?

Such conspiratorial views are already a huge problem for effective governance, according to Balogh. “The anonymous op-ed will simply exacerbate the problem,” he writes.

To be fair to the anonymous author, many Republican members of Congress complain privately about the president’s demeanor and lack of interest in details, yet it is mostly only retiring lawmakers who seem willing to criticize him in public. In addition, presidents often face pushback from advisors who have differing ideas about where policy should go. Manipulating information before it gets to the Oval Office desk is one of the great sports of top-level executive branch officials. The best trick: make sure your preferred option is in the middle of a three-choice list. It’s natural to discard numbers one and three as the extremes.

But the quiet resistance seems to have gone far beyond infighting over options. The most extraordinary detail so far – from Woodward’s “Fear,” not the op-ed – is that former top economic advisor Gary Cohn stole a letter off Trump’s desk that the president was intending to sign to formally withdraw the US from a trade treaty with South Korea. Mr. Cohn told associates the move was a terrible idea, and he removed the paper to protect national security. Trump never noticed the paper was missing, writes Woodward, and the United States remains in the pact.

Aides typically have many opportunities to weigh in prior to presidential decisions on issues, says Saunders, who studies presidential leadership and decisionmaking, particularly in foreign relations. But after the chief executive says he wants to do “X,” that’s usually it. Thus retrieving the trade letter at that point was highly unusual.

“That to me is different. It is really changing things after the fact,” she says. 

Woodward and others have used the phrase “administrative coup” to describe the overall situation. But “coup” is a loaded word that doesn’t really apply in this situation, claim experts. It refers to an attempt to change executive personnel or the regime itself, wrote Naunihal Singh, an expert in coups who teaches at the Naval War College, in a Twitter thread widely shared among political scientists on Wednesday.

But it is far from garden variety bureaucratic behavior, either. Nor is Trump’s lack of follow-up on the South Korea decision document. Woodward published the actual letter, showing what Cohn had stolen back. Trade is one of the issues about which Trump feels strongly, so you’d think he might have asked what had happened in this instance. 

“It’s pretty telling about his inability to oversee this process,” says Saunders.

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