WASHINGTON — The anonymous New York Times op-ed has few if any historic precedents: In real time, a senior administration official is sounding the alarm that the president is impetuous and irrational, and only those around him have restrained him from his worst impulses.
On the latest edition of Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM, presidential historian Tim Naftali says that what the op-ed and Bob Woodward’s soon-to-be-published book show is that “There are people in the government that are trying to signal to the rest of us, ‘We know that Donald Trump is a threat to the republic. We are there not because we want to enable him, but we want to contain him.'”
The op-ed and Woodward’s book suggest that there is a resistance within the administration working to restrain Trump’s worst impulses, which manifests in the refusal of White House officials to carry out some of Trump’s order and an anecdote in which Gary Cohn, who was Trump’s chief economic adviser earlier this year, taking an order off Trump’s desk that would have meant that the U.S. would exit from a trade deal with key ally South Korea. But there is historic precedent for subordinates ignoring or refusing presidential orders.
“There is certainly a precedent for public servants in a presidential administration working presidential actions that they in some way consider unconstitutional or in some way an abuse of power,” Naftali says.
During the Nixon years, Treasury Secretary George Shultz refused to act on the president’s behalf to politicize the IRS, and members of the Office of Management and Budget declined to cut funding to universities because they were led by opponents of the Vietnam war. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diaries of instances where Nixon ordered things “that Haldeman just didn’t do.”
“The problem for Nixon is that he and Haldeman shared a similar ethical world view and there were things Haldeman should have prevented and he didn’t,” said Naftali, who is an associate professor at New York University and the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
He said that his concern with the Trump White House now is that “you will have a purge.”
“No one is advocating breaking the law, I am certainly not advocating it,” he says “But there is an interesting moral debate going on whether people should stay in an administration they deeply disagree with, and if they feel that they are part of the line that will prevent that administration from engaging in unwise or unconstitutional acts,” he says. “That is what this op ed raises. I am sure Americans will disagree on whether or not someone should stay in office, should stay in a government they so bitterly oppose.”
Kavanaugh and ‘Crazytown’
Political strategist Mathew Littman and Emily Goodin of The Daily Mail talk about Washington’s weird week, marked by hundreds arrested at the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, Alex Jones on Capitol Hill and, of course, the anonymous op ed.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11 a.m.-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.