In Washington earlier this month, one person’s words in the New York Times were were deemed a threat to national security by those at whom they were aimed.
An anonymous Trump administration official was labeled “a seditious traitor who must be identified and prosecuted for illegal conduct” for exercising his or her 1st Amendment rights by publishing an op-ed in the September 5 edition of the New York Times. Vice President Pence stated that the op-ed writer’s actions inside the Administration—trying to limit what the writer believes is the damage President Trump is doing daily to the United States—is “an assault on our democracy”—a notion unhinged from any semblance of reality.
Like everyone else working in the Trump administration, the author of the op-ed took the same oath I did when I served in the federal government, the text of which is federal law: 5. U.S.C. § 3331. Here’s the text:
I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
The oath makes no reference to pledging fealty to whoever happens to be President. It is a pledge of loyalty to our form of government, not an individual. The notion that the Justice Department even has a basis to prosecute the writer does not pass the laugh test, much less constitutional muster.
The anonymous Trump administration official—and if he or she is to be believed, many more working for Trump—views him as a domestic threat to the American people and the Constitution itself. Democrats and others on the political left have viewed Trump that way since he won the Electoral College vote in November 2016. Clearly others in the Administration now view Trump the same way.
The anonymous op-ed writer is hardly the first person working for a federal chief executive to believe that an increasingly mentally unhinged boss needed to be contained, or even removed. Nixon White House counsel-turned-Watergate whistleblower John Dean is perhaps the most prominent, but he was not the only Nixon administration official prepared to ignore or even countermand a presidential order deemed a threat to the Republic.
As Daily Beast reporter Gil Troy reminded us less than a month into the Trump presidency, then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger made certain in the summer of 1974 that any Nixon order to the military would not be carried out unless Schlesinger approved it. Would Nixon really have tried to order the Old Guard to do something crazy, like march on Capitol Hill and round up those who voted for the articles of impeachment against him? Probably not, but Schlesinger made sure there was no way it could happen.
I think it’s fair to argue that the author of the op-ed in question should’ve resigned, then published. By remaining anonymous and in the Administration, the author has forced his or her colleagues to engage in the very public and humiliating spectacle of going out of their way to say, “It wasn’t me.” The chaos of Trump’s governing “style” has been deepened by the op-ed writer’s action, something that carries its own risks, however ill-defined they may be.
But the reality is that the day-to-day business of keeping America’s government running is handled by hundreds of thousands of effectively anonymous civil servants, all of whom have taken the oath outlined above, the overwhelming majority of whom execute that oath faithfully every day. It is they who will help ensure that America and its government survive the Trump era, even if enduring it sometimes feels like the political equivalent of passing a kidney stone.