My most central hopes for 2019 involve, as yours likely do, peace at home and abroad. But I also hope very particularly for personal testimony from those who know whereof they speak. I want those who have worked with President Trump to tell us what it is like in this White House. And I want them to put their name on it.
How does he really operate each day? What do you see as you witness him doing his job?
The press reports he watches television for hours, is inattentive to briefings, doesn’t read, rants, rages, nurses petty resentments, doesn’t listen to those with expertise, doesn’t understand the constitutional limits on his office, is increasingly alone and paranoid. Are these things true?
What else is true? Would you trust him to handle a situation in which sound and immediate decisions had to be made in a clock-ticking crisis? Would you trust him to lead honestly and credibly through a crisis?
Two years is enough time to know. It is enough time to have observed and come to conclusions. It’s enough time to describe with confidence how things really are.
Candor couldn’t be more important than now and in the coming year, which will be politically fraught.
Next week Democrats take control of the House. They will certainly launch new investigations, and impeachment will become more prominent in the national discussion. Special counsel Robert Mueller will at some point report his findings to the Justice Department. Whatever his report contains it will not be compliments, and may include offenses Democrats and others judge impeachable. Tensions will be high and nonstop.
And that’s just one area of life, the president and Congress. Add a deeply unpredictable world and surprise events. Things aren’t going to get calmer, more stable, more placid and predictable in the coming year. Nor will the president.
Why do those who have worked with Mr. Trump so rarely if ever speak in any depth, in public, of their experience? Courtesy—it is traditional to serve quietly and leave discreetly. Fear—once you speak critically of a president, you’re a target. And maybe some aren’t sure what to think. A lot of people in the White House have never worked in one before. It takes time to figure out the difference between the weird and disturbing and the merely idiosyncratic. But again, two years—by now you should know.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said a great deal in his resignation letter, but between the lines. He strongly believes “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” We need to treat our allies with “respect.” We must be “clear-eyed” about strategic competitors such as China and Russia. Mr. Mattis’s own views are “informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.” “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
He was saying the president does not treat allies and alliances with respect, is inexperienced, is not clear-eyed regarding some strategic threats. There was not a word of praise for the president, nor an expression of personal gratitude. Instead, “I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.”
For this oblique criticism, marked more by what was unsaid than what was said, Mr. Mattis was told to clean out his desk and leave before he had planned.
It was a good letter. But one letter isn’t enough.
The Trump supporters I know are motivated by patriotism, not spleen, bigotry or bitterness. They are so loyal to their man in part because they see all the forces arrayed against him, especially in the media. They believe, legitimately, that he gets only grudging credit for his accomplishments. And they have told themselves a story about the brave if unlikely outsider who sacrificed his own comfort to upend a corrupt system and protect the interests of the common man.
They will never believe the mainstream media when they say this presidency is unstable, dangerous, a threat.
Journalists are sometimes puzzled by this. After all, their books and articles are full of unsparing facts and observations about the president—and those quotes came from White House staffers and other administration officials. But those officials speak not for attribution. They are not named. Trump supporters will not believe anyone who won’t put his name on it, and whose motives are unclear.
But they will believe the generals. They will believe those who’ve worked in the administration in substantial positions and who can define what isn’t working and what the chaos means—with examples. They will believe serious people who gave an inexperienced president a chance, who joined his administration when others were reluctant, who put their careers on the line and tried to help the country.
They will believe those whose motives are clear and constructive.
They won’t believe someone like Omarosa, who wrote a book when she left the White House calling the president a cynic, a “racist, misogynist, and bigot.” They’d see her as a scatty show-business creature who got fired and is hitting back.
They won’t believe the words of “Anonymous,” author of the September New York Times op-ed that became a sensation. “The president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” that person wrote. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality.” The president’s impulses are “generally . . . anti-democratic.” Meetings with him “veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.” His behavior is “erratic” and is regularly thwarted by “unsung heroes” of the internal resistance.
This electrified the media and reinforced the views of Trump foes, but to my observation left Trump supporters coolly unimpressed. Unsung heroes? Who brokered this, a book agent? Anyone can protect his post-White House reputation with an anonymous hit piece, anyone can rationalize staying in a cushy job. Anyone can shore up his ideological bona fides so he’s not shunned later on by the people who matter to him. The piece seemed written not to expose a problem but to cover the tracks of a self-valorizing staffer who wants both to enjoy the White House and not be tainted by it. It was a career move, not a patriotic one.
Trump supporters will not believe the testimony of unnamed people with unknown motives. They will believe only the testimony of serious people who are obviously patriots.
Turnover has been high in this administration. Many have been fired or resigned. They should tell us what they know.
Those who did that would certainly become a target of the president’s operatives. They might for a time become figures of obloquy. They’d be called rats.
But if you do see this president as ultimately dangerous, you have a responsibility to say it.
We need some noble rats.
May they come forward, speak softly, and make their motives clear.