The enigma of the resistance op-ed

The enigma of the resistance op-ed
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The anonymous New York Times op-ed detailing resistance to President TrumpDonald TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' MORE from within the administration is an arresting document. It gives a real-time inside view of administrative politics that usually are hashed out in public only years after the fact in memoirs — with names attached. More strikingly, it purports to reveal that the president, despite his often brash claims, is not actually in charge of his executive branch.

To be sure, resistance of the president’s actions by bureaucrats — appointed and career, senior advisers and functionaries, civilian and military — is nothing new. Ever since President Andrew Jackson fired two Treasury secretaries for refusing his order to remove deposits from the Bank of the United States almost 200 years ago, presidents have grappled with bureaucrats for control over the executive branch.


What is different is that this resistance is, according to the anonymous author, widespread and generalized. It is not a limited cabal of officials working against the president; it reportedly is “many senior officials.” It is not just a disagreement with specific policies, but with the president’s agenda more broadly — and even his “inclinations” as a leader in general.


But there are some strange elements of this op-ed, which should make us skeptical about the motives behind it, and certainly about its effects.

If you were part of an internal resistance movement, would it be smart to announce your project? And would it be smart to do so now?

The Trump administration is only about 40 percent through its first term. Cutting it short by the 25th Amendment always has been far-fetched, and the anonymous author disavows it. Similarly, impeachment remains only a fervent hope of the left. Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE has not announced anything close to grounds for impeachment of President Trump under a Republican-controlled Senate. Given this, the best hope for a resistance project is to keep resisting — and there is probably a long time to go.

The op-ed writer just made that massively more difficult. If President Trump did not already know of these machinations, he certainly does now. If he did have an inkling, now it is common knowledge. No president intent on exerting control in the executive branch — and all of them must, to implement an agenda — can tolerate an open secret of insubordination. We now can expect President Trump to scrutinize the actions of executive branch officials much more closely, and to demand extreme demonstrations of fealty to his agenda — or lacking a coherent one, to him personally.

What’s more, the op-ed may exacerbate the very crisis of competence that the author laments. Every president wants both loyalty and competence in senior officials. Unfortunately, as in every other area of life, it usually is not possible to have more of all good things. There are tradeoffs.

Now, the op-ed just notified the president that loyalty may be in short supply among his senior advisers. Going forward, would we then expect him to emphasize loyalty or competence as he fills up vacancies in his administration? Obviously, the former. And if he can’t get a sufficiently loyal placeholder, he may even prefer a vacant position. All of this will further erode the competence of this administration.

We can count on President Trump to respond in this way because it is consistent with the imperatives of every president. They are accountable to the nation for implementing an agenda, but they face a sprawling and centrifugal executive branch. Most have responded by centralizing control and evading constraints as much as possible. We have this process to thank for the very West Wing institutions that may harbor some of the internal resistance.

In short, it is impossible to see how the Times op-ed made the resistance project any easier. If, as the author intones, the self-styled “grownups in the room” deem this effort crucial for the health of the nation and its institutions, why would they undermine their own effort in this way?

This simply reminds us that we don’t know the author’s agenda in writing this piece. What seems unlikely, given the probable fallout within the administration, is that the author’s agenda is purity and truth-telling. The author’s anonymity creates power, but it also creates ambiguity. That makes this op-ed an enigma, if an intriguing or even tantalizing one. But it is one that should be treated skeptically. We will only know more when the author’s identity is revealed — as he or she inevitably knows it will be at some future date, with obvious implications for the author’s own notoriety.

The op-ed reveals that, despite Article II of the Constitution vesting “the executive power” in the president, this one may not actually hold it. We can argue about whether that is good or bad for democratic accountability. But if one wants to see President Trump undermined from within, the op-ed might be emotionally satisfying rather than strategically adroit. A quiet resistance from the inside is best kept, well, quiet.  

Sean Gailmard is a professor in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His research includes the historical development of the American executive branch. He is the author of “Learning While Governing: Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch” (2012, University of Chicago Press, with John W. Patty). Follow him on Twitter @SeanGailmard.