This morning I awoke to find that Scott Jennings, “a CNN contributor, former special assistant to President George W. Bush, former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell and currently a partner in a PR firm he co-founded in Kentucky, had published through CNN an attack on the decision of an anonymous Trump administration official to publish through the New York Times a statement about the chaos and malfunction in the Office of the President of the United States.
First, I want to acknowledge that Mr. Jennings is a very smart and accomplished person. His brief bio on CNN.com does not reveal that he is a Resident Fellow to the Harvard Institute of Politics. He had roles in both of President Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, before becoming Special Assistant to the President and Deputy White House Political Director in 2005. Among other things, his office advised the president on many issues. Jennings has helped elect U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (’02, ’08, ’14), among others.
He also knows how to spend money in politics. In 2014, Jennings served as senior advisor to a Super PAC that spent millions supporting the re-election of McConnell. He also served in a similar role for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a 501(c)4 non-profit that has spent millions of dollars on “issue advertising” in Kentucky since 2013. This biography makes clear that Jennings is a hard-core Republican operative with a likely interest in backing an imperial view of the president’s position.
The anonymous New York Times op-ed is by turns shocking/disturbing/terrifying (take your pick or all of them) in its acknowledgement of the disfunction in the White House led by an erratic and untrustworthy person but also reassuring to a limited degree in its contention that there are “adults in the room” taking care of the nation’s business when the president goes off the rails.
Note also a point largely overlooked in the breathless analysis of the event: “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” If true, the op-ed author is not alone in resisting the president. Also note that the author says the root of the problem is the “the president’s amorality,” and that he is “not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” These comments support the view, often stated in press interviews, that Trump makes up everything as he goes along, based on some internal belief that he is a “stable genius” and knows more than all the experts that surround him in Washington.
The Republican establishment is going berserk over the idea that a high administration official would speak anonymously about the situation in the White House. Remarkably, many Republican voices are a chorus on the point that “we all knew Trump was bonkers” so there’s no news here. Their big objection is that someone close to the president has anonymously admitted to actively resisting Trump to prevent him from damaging the national security of the United States. Their view is that this person should instead resign his/her position and then shut up so the president can go about his business in any way he likes.
That appears to be the core of Jennings’ objections to the op-ed: “These statements are alarming, of course, because of the “senior” level status of the government official purported to have written them.” In other words, if the op-ed had been produced by a low level employee, who cares?
“But they are also alarming.” Jennings continued,
“because an anonymous, unelected government appointee is substituting his or her judgment for that of the duly elected leader of a constitutional republic. Nowhere in the op-ed does the appointee allege criminal or treasonous behavior on the part of the President. Rather, this person says the President is not faithful to “ideals long espoused by conservatives,” and conducts meetings that “veer off topic and off the rails. While I agree that unfaithfulness to conservative principles and bad meeting habits are annoying, are they grounds for the unelected to put themselves above the will of the people?”
Really? Just “annoying?” “Will of the people?” Jennings assumes away one of the most critical questions implicated by the op-ed, namely, that the Trump administration, having received massive support from a foreign power (Russia), is therefore illegitimate and that Trump is an unhinged person incapable of exercising the vast responsibilities of the office he holds. One must be careful about “will of the people” arguments in the context of the Trump administration where there is an outstanding investigation of possible collusion, with the president’s knowledge and approval, with a foreign power to steal the election.
When Jennings states “Voters knew exactly what they were getting with Trump,” he is implicitly admitting that the claims about the unhinged and dangerous behavior of the president are legitimate and certainly not surprising. Yet he, and the other Republicans howling about the op-ed, continue to argue that the use of anonymity and the acts of resisting the president are more important than assuring that the president does not undertake dangerous actions harmful to the country. I can’t say this is surprising when the record of the Republican-controlled Congress is considered. Those politicians clearly care more about retaining their party in power than they do about the risks to the country and the world from having a leader who resembles Kim Jong-Un in more ways than one.
Jennings also argues that the op-ed author has a “duty to resign” and then should reportwhatever egregious behavior he or she has personally seen to Congress and the Special Counsel Robert Mueller.” There are two problems with that position.
One, if all the insiders resisting the president’s unhinged behavior were to resign, there would remain no internal resistance to his “egregious,” or much worse, behavior. The sudden interest of Republicans in “honor” is a pathetic joke in like of the failure of Congress to exercise its checks-and-balances responsibilities.
Second, Mueller’s investigation is not about “egregious behavior” and Mueller’s taking such information would just lead to more Republican screeching about Mueller illegally expanding his investigation beyond its proper boundaries. It is beyond cynical to now suggest that Mueller look into the president’s “amorality.”
It should also be noted that if the op-ed author were to reveal his/her identity, he/she would immediately be fired, perhaps even arrested. That’s asking a lot of someone who was apparently trying to mitigate the worst aspects of a dangerous autocrat’s tenure in the nation’s highest office.
It’s also more than a little hypocritical to be arguing that there are superior “remedies created for us by the founding fathers.” Technically, that is true, but since the Republican majorities in the House and Senate have shown only blind obeisance to Trump regardless of his outrageous behavior bordering on if not actually treason, it is clear that the regular constitutional mechanisms for controlling an out-of-control president are not effective.
Jennings has a somewhat fair point in saying, “Is it right for unelected people to make decisions for him? Is this a signal we want to send the rest of the world, that constitutional order has fallen apart in the world’s most durable democracy? Because that’s precisely the destabilizing effect this op-ed will have on America’s standing in the eyes of our friends … and our enemies.”
Maybe, but if one was awake during the period since Trump’s inauguration, it should be clear that the constitutional order has already fallen apart and that our relations with friends around the world have been undermined and destabilized by the conduct of the president. It’s a bit late and completely cynical for anyone on the Republican side to be citing the “constitutional order” as a basis for objecting to the op-ed.
Jennings also argues “Those who stole papers from the Oval Office must be subpoenaed by Congress to explain themselves, because we deserve to know whether they have a good reason beyond just policy differences with their boss.” The basis for the Congress to investigate the conduct of Executive Branch appointees is not apparent to me. Think about what that process would look like. Such “investigations” could not be held in public so we would have members of the White House senior staff and possibly Cabinet officers testifying in secret Star Chamber-like proceedings that would inevitably resemble the days of Joe McCarthy. The fruits of the Trump presidency.
Jennings goes on to address the formal ways the Constitution provides for addressing problems with the president:
The founding fathers provided three tools to stop a runaway presidency — elections, impeachment, and invoking the 25th amendment. The Times op-ed writer admits that no one in the Trump administration “wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis” by invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president. This tells me that the writer’s concerns aren’t widely held enough to actually rally a constitutionally allowable coup against the President.
That leaves impeachment, which I suspect House Democrats will pursue come January if they take over the House of Representatives via elections in November. Strangely, Democratic leaders must not believe impeachment to be a winning message, as they continuously try to tamp down talk of it on the campaign trail, despite the desire of their base to toss Trump in the Potomac River. [emphasis added]
This is all well and good but fails on several grounds. First, the decision of staff, or whomever was involved, not to seek 25th Amendment relief does not logically support the assertion that the writer’s concerns weren’t widely held. That argument is similar to the position often espoused by KellyAnne Conway that since Trump won the election, no one cares that he lied about disclosing his tax returns. Second, citing the checks and balances is fine but it’s grossly hypocritical, and worse, to suggest at this stage that the Republican-controlled Congress is going to lift a finger to corral the president.
Jennings closes with a clearly political message.
The writer would do well to view the situation through the prism of an average, middle-American voter who selected Trump less than two years ago. That person is likely to believe that the economy is humming, that optimism is rising, that the President is appointing good judges, and that even the Congress is operating efficiently in what is supposedly a chaotic environment.
There are better ways to handle this beyond signaling that elections and our constitution have lost their usefulness as the means to enact change. Perhaps allowing an election to pass, so that actual voters can consider the facts and render a judgment, is more prudent than circumventing the established constitutional order that has served our republic well.
I suggest that the op-ed author viewed the situation from a greater awareness than worrying about what Trump’s political base may think, especially considering the evidence that many of them don’t think at all. It is far better to think about this issue apart from politics. The “established constitutional order” is hardly “served our republic well” by any reasonable standard. When the substance of the op-ed is combined with other known evidence, not least the revelations in Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book, Fear, it may yet be true that the anonymous author of the op-ed will indeed be regarded as a hero. The election that Jennings prefers as the arbiter of Trump’s performance is drawing close and it will tell us much on that question.
Footnote: I just heard another pundit on CNN saying Trump was “duly elected” and therefore the op-ed author is on shaky ground criticizing him. I repeat: media people should stop saying “Trump was duly elected.” There are outstanding legitimate concerns about the “duly” part of that story that are under active federal investigation. The press has no business just writing such issues off in their discussion of issues affecting the administration.