Before the word “resignation” became a euphemism for being fired, it connoted a sense of public integrity and personal honor. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, showed both qualities when they resigned from the Nixon administration during the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973.
Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, did likewise when he resigned during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.
Assuming Mike Pompeo and John Bolton still have their own senses intact, they too should resign after the epic disgrace of the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki on Monday. So should their senior staff.
I don’t suggest this lightly. I’ve known both men for years, respect them and wrote friendly columns when they took their current jobs. I share many of their hawkish views, and have applauded some of the administration’s controversial foreign policy decisions, particularly the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
I’m also cognizant of two factors weighing against resignation. First, Cabinet members and other senior White House officials owe a president deep loyalty whatever their policy differences – the sort of loyalty George Marshall showed when he declined to resign as secretary of state despite his fierce opposition to Harry Truman’s decision to recognize Israel.
Second, whoever succeeds Pompeo or Bolton could very well be worse. Secretary of State Newt Gingrich? National Security Adviser Sebastian Gorka? Why not? For an administration whose core values are personal toadyism and ethical elasticity, they’d be perfect.
Yet those considerations do not relieve Pompeo, Bolton and their staff of three higher duties: the Constitution, to which they swore an oath; the country, to which they pledge allegiance; and their conscience, to which they ultimately must account.
The Constitution. No, Donald Trump is not guilty of “treason,” a word that’s been bandied about much too loosely this week. Treason is narrowly defined in the Constitution for a good reason, and its promiscuous misuse only helps the president’s defenders paint opponents as hysterics and ignoramuses.
Trump’s behavior in Helsinki is, however, another vivid reminder of his manifest unfitness for office. That’s true whether the behavior is best explained as a matter of moral turpitude or mental incompetence – of his eagerness to accept the word of a trained liar like Vladimir Putin over the consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, or of his inability to speak coherently at a critical moment in his presidency. The president’s pathetic suggestion on Tuesday that he misspoke by failing to use a double negative also reminds that, knave or fool, he’s a congenital liar.
By continuing to serve the president, Pompeo and Bolton and their top aides are not – as they doubtlessly tell themselves in humiliating moments like this one – cleaning up after him. They are covering up for him.
The country. In 2016, Bolton denounced Trump’s penny-wise approach to NATO for “encouraging Russian aggression.” Last year, he wrote that Russian interference in the U.S. election was “a true act of war,” and that Putin’s denials were “insulting.” This was in a newspaper op-ed titled, in part, “Negotiate with Russia at our peril.” Those views remain true. Russia is a hostile power seeking, as Pompeo told me last year in a public interview, “to stick it to America.” Yet Trump has repeatedly gone out of his way to mollify and elevate Putin. To the extent that his administration has been tough on Russia – as with last week’s Justice Department indictments of Russian intelligence officers or March’s expulsion of 60 Russians – it has been over Trump’s personal objections.
The GOP’s pro-Russia caucus, channeling Trump’s ideological id through such simpering mouthpieces as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, continues to gain ground, with the percentage of Republican voters with a favorable view of Putin more than doubling since 2015.
Bolton and Pompeo should be leading the conservative charge against the Putin appeasers. In office, they are effectively complicit with them.
Conscience. On Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Vance’s son, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., about his father’s decision to resign. “If he could not in good conscience support the president’s views publicly, he felt he had a duty to the president and the country to step away,” Vance said. “He went out in a very painful personal way, but faithful to his views.”
Vance adds that one of his takeaways from his father’s experience is “how important it is, if you’re going into government, to be a decision-maker for your own policies.” No adviser to a president is going to get his way all of the time, but at a minimum, that adviser should be able to defend the tilt of an administration’s policy as if it were his own. If not, he should make room for those who can. Right now, Bolton and Pompeo are parties to a Russia policy they would never otherwise advocate and cannot possibly defend in light of their public views. This means that they are either violating their principles, or had none to begin with.
If it’s the latter, by all means they should stay put and enjoy the aphrodisiac of power for however long it may last. If the former, the only decent course is to resign.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 NYT News Service