One of the remarkable things about new reports that President Trump made an "inappropriate" promise to a foreign leader during a summertime phone call is that it came to the public — in bits and pieces, certainly — via a formal whistleblower complaint by a U.S. intelligence official.
There is so much we don't know right now about the whistleblower's motivations, or even what the complaint really entails, although new and seemingly conflicting reports involving Ukraine continue to emerge, punctuated by a crazy Rudy Giuliani appearance on CNN. We do know, however, that the matter is going through official channels — which makes this news something more consequential than most of the anonymously sourced backbiting we've seen so often during the Trump administration. In other words, somebody within the government is officially saying the government should protect itself from the president.
But there is a downside. This complaint may also represent the federal bureaucracy's last stand against the president. Unless the House of Representatives switches course and suddenly impeaches Trump — and there is little sign of such a development — there is no one else to step forward and save America from him.
Let's backtrack: There is ample evidence that Trump is singularly unfit for office. And additional facts have accumulated throughout Trump's presidency suggesting that the federal bureaucracy — including both Trump's political appointees and longer-term members of the permanent federal workforce — have acted to keep his worst impulses in check.
The most famous example of this was the "anonymous" op-ed in The New York Times a year ago, in which an unknown writer declared that the resistance to Trump's presidency reached all the way into the White House, with advisers and officials slow-walking some of the president's orders and simply refusing to enact others.
"It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room," the official wrote. "We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what's right even when Donald Trump won't."
Such stories have not been isolated. Bob Woodward's book about the Trump White House, Fear, included several anecdotes of top officials intervening to keep Trump's orders from going forward. Gary Cohn, then Trump's economic adviser, even reportedly stole a letter off Trump's desk in order to keep the president from breaking off a trade deal with South Korea. This week, an official publicly admonished Trump not to discuss sensitive technology that helps the U.S. track undocumented migrants crossing at the border.
Oh my god. Trump starts to discuss apparently sensitive technology deployed at the border. Asks the General in charge to describe the technology.
The General's response: "Sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that." pic.twitter.com/FlSmiNTbLM
— Scott Stedman (@ScottMStedman) September 18, 2019
These anecdotes tend to annoy our conspiracy-minded president and his supporters, who see such efforts as "Deep State" machinations intended to keep Trump from carrying out his agenda. That's possible, but it's just as likely that individuals who have given their lives to public service see themselves as the last thin line between Trump and a national disaster.
Their efforts, while necessary, are also troubling: If one of the central issues of the Trump Era is that the president seems to have little respect for democratic norms and traditions, then it is problematic that the most effective resistance to Trump often comes from unelected officials who owe the public little or no accountability.
If Trump has his way, of course, there will be fewer whistleblowers in the future. His administration has moved to make it easier to fire federal workers, and to eliminate the Office of Personnel Management — essentially the government's Human Resources department — entirely. That would allow the president to shape the federal workforce more to his liking, and probably reduce or eliminate the pockets of resistance that remain within the federal government.
When you add those efforts to Trump's remaking of his Cabinet over the last year or so — there is no longer a Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, or a Chief of Staff John Kelly with the experience or credibility to oppose the president's worst instincts from within the administration — it's clear the in-house resistance to the president is becoming much diminished.
Of course, the bureaucracy was never meant to save us from the president. The Constitution gives that job, if needed, to Congress. The whistleblowers have done their duty to the country. Will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ever do hers?
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