Verbum Ultimum: Principled Defiance
Government officials owe their loyalty to the people, not the president.
“Isn’t it dreadful? Here we are, two officers of the German General Staff, discussing how best to murder our commander-in-chief,” said Henning von Tresckow, a major general in the Wehrmacht, as he plotted with his fellows to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This will not be a comparison of President Donald Trump to the forces von Tresckow and his contemporaries faced when they defied their government, their orders and their training as soldiers in an effort to bring about the end of Nazism. This is, however, a laudable example of the morality of government employees who stood up for their country even when it meant working against their leader.
Earlier this week, Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates in an action reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” What was Yates’ crime? She put her morality, her conception of the our Constitution and her principles of good government over her allegiance to a man who is our president. She put country ahead of personality, democracy ahead of a strongman. Trump’s administration issued a statement that said Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice” by refusing to defend the law and that she was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” Trump’s statement is dangerous to American ideals and democracy. Our public servants do not serve the president or any cult of personality. They serve the American people,through the devices of law, fact and the Constitution. And these are real facts here.
At her confirmation hearing in January 2015, Sen. Jeff Sessions — now Trump’s nominee for attorney general — asked Yates if the attorney general or deputy attorney general should say no to a president “if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful.” Yates’ reply is illuminating: “Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president.” She did exactly that on Monday night. She said she would put the law and the Constitution first — then she did.
But Yates was not alone. Many in our civil service have rejected or questioned the president’s orders. The Badlands National Park’s Twitter account incident is perhaps the most discussed. Shortly after Trump administration officials ordered the National Park Service to suspend its social media activity and just before the administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture not to communicate with the press or public — preventing the agencies from publishing scientific findings, a primary function of both agencies — the Badlands account began to tweet scientific facts into the “Twitter-verse.” And make no mistake: these were scientific facts, not conjecture. They included messages about atmospheric carbon levels, ocean acidity and pollution — all areas that stand to be ignored by Trump’s climate change-denying administration.
Thereafter, “alt” Twitter accounts dedicated to promoting scientific facts were set up by people who stated they are employees of agencies like the EPA. With names like @ActualEPAFacts, these accounts now have almost four million followers between them. These actions by civil servants and government-employed scientists — doing the jobs for which they were hired — are in the best tradition of American democracy, representing a principled stand against a president and administration with a loose relationship to the truth and an inability to rid itself of conflicts of interest or ethical malfeasance.
At the Department of State, U.S. Foreign Service officials and departmental civil servants began circulating a dissent cable — an established practice where employees believe a government policy may be destructive, unlawful or harmful — over last weekend that now bears over 1,000 signatures. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded by calling on government employees who disagreed with Trump to resign, saying they “should either get with the program or they can go,” evidently forgetting that civil servants are not political appointees and are engaged by the American people to manage and enforce law responsibly and to ensure its consistency and validity.
All of these people — principled political appointees like Yates to civil servants and diplomats eager to do their jobs and defend this country — are enforcers of the American tradition of democracy and civil service. Both elected officials and members of both the civil service and the president’s own team must put their conception of reality, their belief in the rule of law and, first and foremost, their allegiance to our country and its ideals above any personal loyalty they have.
We are not, in any presidency, that president’s version of America. Instead, we are the voices of diversity and individuality that united almost two and a half centuries ago at Lexington and Concord as an alliance of farmers and cobblers, mothers and daughters, blacksmiths and teachers, doctors and merchants; an alliance which lives on today as the United States of America. We are a nation of ideals, not a nation led by a cult of personality. Our civil servants and our elected and appointed officials owe their allegiance only to the Constitution and to the American people.
The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.