So President Trump has disgraced the country once again. But as shocking as it was to see an American president standing beside Vladimir Putin and taking Russia’s side against the United States, it wasn’t that surprising. We now know who and what Donald Trump is. A more open question is who the rest of our leaders are. And, more particularly, what the fact that they’re still willing to stay in their jobs says about them, about their values and about our culture.
According to Politico’s Playbook, there was “general consensus in the Capitol” that Trump had “thoroughly embarrassed the United States.” But privately, “senior-level Republican aides and lawmakers had a second message: WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT US TO DO?”
For all those furrowed-browed senators, members of Congress and White House and administration officials professing helplessness in the face of their boss serially dishonoring the country they took an oath to serve, here’s what you can do: Resign.
If ever there was an obvious example of the case for resigning on principle, this is it. And yet there they are, clinging to their jobs as if nothing else matters. That so many of our leaders are willing to publicly surrender all values of integrity, honor and patriotism is a stark illustration of defining ourselves so fully by our jobs that we can’t imagine existing without them. It’s a sign of how deeply held the misguided belief is that the only metrics of success that really matter are money, and in this case, power.
So many of our leaders appear to be so inexplicably held hostage to their job titles that they are not even considering one of the most noble practices in politics throughout history: the honorable resignation.
In 1973, both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and deputy William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than follow President Nixon’s order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. “There are lines,” Ruckelshaus said, “In this case, the line was bright and the decision was simple.”
In 1980, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned over Operation Eagle Claw, President Carter’s plan to rescue the hostages being held in Tehran. Vance’s resignation was in advance of the mission, not after its failure. He quit on principle because he disagreed with his president, convinced that the operation was too dangerous, not likely to succeed and that it would scuttle negotiations for the hostages’ release. When he died in 2002, one headline captured the decision, calling him a “principled statesman.”
During the Clinton years, two assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services, Mary Jo Bane and Peter Edelman, along with appointee Wendell Primus, resigned over Clinton’s welfare reform plan.
Today the lines that should not be crossed could not be brighter and simpler. And the ultimate line is the line between one’s job and one’s sense of self. We’ll die with one, but not the other. And sometimes, we have to choose. In our eulogies, it’s not our jobs and our titles that we’re celebrated for. But it could be how and when we chose to leave them.
And if our Republican political leaders have forgotten their history and the distinction between our resume values and our eulogy values, former CIA Director John Brennan reminded them this week: “This…rises to the point of good American patriots resigning in objection to that performance by Donald Trump.”
Are you listening, Ambassador Nikki Haley? Ambassador Jon Huntsman? National Security Director John Bolton? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats? Indeed, days before Trump’s disgraceful performance, Coats issued a dark warning: “It was in the months prior to September 2001 when, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet, the system was blinking red. And here we are nearly two decades later, and I’m here to say, the warning lights are blinking red again.” And yet, here is Dan Coats, refusing to do the right thing.
And it’s not just ambassadors and White House and Cabinet officials who are in history’s crosshairs, it’s all of Trump’s enablers in Washington, both appointed and elected. They’re all making the same short-sighted choice. “Almost every elected Republican we talk to privately thinks President Trump’s warm embrace of Vladimir Putin was unexplainable, unacceptable and un-American,” write Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan in Axios. “Yes, they wish they could say this publicly. No, they won’t — not now, and probably never.” Why? “They see no upside in speaking out — and fear political suicide if they do, numerous Republican officials tell us.”
What about the upside of doing the right thing for your country? Of being on the right side of history? Of your grandchildren being able to be proud of you? “Political suicide” is another name for a job change. Is their entire identity so fragile and so entirely wrapped up in their job that resignation is perceived as threatening their very survival? And many of them claim to be men of faith, so let me remind them: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Let’s give credit to the one official who did resign (if I’ve missed anyone, please let me know). He may be far down the org chart from the White House, the Cabinet and the congressional leadership but should be honored and celebrated. In Ohio, Belmont County Republican Chair Chris Gagin said “something snapped” when he heard Trump’s press conference, and he submitted his resignation “immediately” afterwards. But he doesn’t expect many others to join him. “Unless you have an attack of conscience, there’s nothing forcing you to do anything,” he said.
Actually, there’s a Greek word – one of my favorites – for being intrinsically motivated by conscience: filotimo. It’s not easy to convey – “love of honour” is the literal translation — but in Greek life it’s much more than that. “Doing the right thing” is how one Greek doctor put it. “Loving and honouring God and your society,” is how a Greek priest described it. Bottom line: valuing things beyond your job and your place in the social pecking order — things bigger than yourself.
So if you’re one of those privately — and rightly — complaining about how “unacceptable” and “un-American” your boss and party leader is, do it in public. Choose your values, your country and your legacy over your job.