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Country first: We need to elect leaders who put principles before party

The White House is seen from South Lawn prior to an event on Monday, November 15, 2021.
Greg Nash
A view of the White House in this Nov. 16, 2021, file photo.

As we approach the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, I am reminded of the frequent warnings issued in a series of op-eds and interviews by one of the most principled and respected leaders of our time, Admiral Bill McRaven. I first met Bill in January of 2018 when I was serving as the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a politically appointed position that doubles as the undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere in the Department of Commerce. McRaven, a former Navy SEAL who commanded the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, was then the chancellor of the University of Texas (UT). He had asked to meet with me to see what NOAA could do to help repair the damage to UT’s Marine Science Institute caused by Hurricane Harvey the year before, and I was glad to offer assistance.

McRaven never mentioned then-President Trump during our meeting, but he did so with great effect four weeks later. As if he had a premonition of the events on Jan. 6 nearly three years later, the former special operations commander said that Trump’s treatment of the media “may be the greatest attack on democracy in my lifetime.” Those same words would be used by countless commentators on the left and right, including those in the U.S. Congress during the former president’s second impeachment to describe the former president’s role in inciting the attack at the Capitol. And so it went for the remainder of my time in the administration: the former president on one hand engaging in the kind of moral, legal and ethical misconduct that led to his first impeachment, and one of my greatest role models, on the other hand, calling him out.

From scandals affecting my agency, forced resignations of good people who refused to compromise their integrity to appease the former president, to Trump’s failure to show leadership during the pandemic (which was so bad that it was even derided in the conservative media), there were many times when it was a challenge for me not to resign in protest. The latter was particular disappointing because Trump’s careless attitude toward COVID-19 was a sad disservice to the stunning success of his administration in accelerating vaccine development. Such was the case for the many other outstanding accomplishments by federal agencies like mine under his tenure — overshadowed by his headline-grabbing missteps and self-promotion. In the end, I resisted resigning out of loyalty to the federal employees who served under me. 

From my observations as a senior official in the Trump administration, I cannot support any member of Congress who advocates for the former president’s reelection. I am not, however, condemning the entire Trump administration. I served with many presidential appointees who I respected and accomplished a great deal of good for our country. In fact, recent polls indicate that the public is losing confidence in the Biden administration too, as it is failing to adequately deal with a perfect storm of crises, including record-setting inflation, unchecked crime and violence, unprecedented supply chain disruptions, repercussions from the disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan, increasing assertiveness of China and Russia, continued immigration challenges, and of course, the latest wave of COVID-19 infections.

This dissatisfaction reflects the unfortunate fact that America remains strongly divided. A large faction of pro-Trump Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that returning Trump to office will not endanger our democracy, and an equally large number of Democrats are advancing a progressive agenda that is an overreaction to the past president, but unpopular to many Americans.

How then are we to truly unify the nation? Consider the common thread behind McRaven’s criticisms of Trump — his inability to “do the right thing” and put the country before himself, which ultimately manifested on Jan. 6 and in his continued false claims of election fraud. McRaven himself may have provided the best example yet of the kind of compromise needed when he spoke in 2020 against Trump’s reelection. Despite his conservative ideals, he knew he could not support such a divisive and selfish leader. This is the kind of real leadership that we should expect of those running for office in the 2022 midterms — to put country before party and country before self.

Rear Admiral (ret) Tim Gallaudet is an adviser for Renew America Movement, CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, former deputy administrator of NOAA, assistant secretary of Commerce, and oceanographer the Navy. His book about his federal service, “Holding Fast in Heavy Seas – Leading America’s Top Ocean Agency in Turbulent Times” will be published in the fall of 2022.

Tags Democrats Donald Trump jan. 6 Party Politics Republicans Tim Gallaudet Trump administration White House

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