Your City or Your Soul: On Moral Compromise and Government Service
In the weeks and months after the presidential election—and even before it—an unusual debate took shape on the pages of Lawfare and elsewhere: Would it be possible to serve ethically in a Trump administration? And even if it is possible, should a person of conscience do it?
Broadly speaking, the two sides of the argument ran as follows. Those arguing for service noted the possibility of mitigating damage by pushing against or slow-rolling harmful policy from within. Those arguing against it made the case that service in an administration openly hostile to many of the norms of pluralism and constitutional democracy is inherently degrading to one’s soul: the initially reluctant official may lose some of the reluctance as time goes on—either because of diminished moral sensitivity over time or because of the path dependencies associated with service. And in the case of political appointees, the presence of decent and honorable men and women might lend an unearned legitimacy to an administration that would otherwise be seen as indecent and dishonorable.
I suspect this debate has been on many minds over this past few weeks in light of the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, particularly the involvement in it of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who drafted the memo on which the White House initially relied in publicly justifying Comey’s firing. Rosenstein, a career prosecutor within the Justice Department, was previously respected widely across party lines and had built a reputation for independence—and since the Comey firing, he has renewed many people’s confidence in him with his decision to appoint a special counsel and his choice of Robert Mueller to serve in that role. Yet after the White House initially described the firing as Rosenstein’s idea and then revealed that Rosenstein was used as a pawn to lend legitimacy to a precooked political decision, Rosenstein’s name was reduced to a punchline—rather literally: the Washington Post reports that as White House communications staff scrambled to come up with messaging in the wake of Comey’s termination, “it became a running joke among some staffers that the answer to every question would be ‘Rosenstein.’”
Rosenstein certainly deserves credit for appointing Mueller, a move that will do a great deal to restore public trust in the ongoing probe following Comey’s dismissal. Last week, he also spoke to the House of Representatives and the Senate regarding his role in the firing. As Benjamin Wittes and I have written, his publicly released statement to the House clarified some lingering questions about his involvement—namely, acknowledging that he knew Trump had decided on firing Comey before he drafted his memo—but raised further concerns regarding to what extent Rosenstein was aware of the role of the Russia investigation in Comey’s firing. So the question of how history will understand his role remains somewhat in flux.
That said, Rosenstein’s behavior has clearly renewed the earlier debate—and given a kind of granular texture to it. No more is it a hypothetical set of questions. We now have at least the general outlines of the pressures service in the Trump administration put on one well-reputed public servant.
Writing shortly after Comey’s dismissal, Ben saw in Rosenstein a warning to pending or potential political appointees: “The lesson here is that these are not honorable people, and they will do their best to drag you down to their level.” Likewise, Jack Goldsmith has taken the case of Rosenstein as an occasion to consider how the usual difficulties of serving with integrity as a government lawyer and political appointee are magnified under this most peculiar of administrations. “[T]he crucial decision for a prospective senior Trump administration attorney may not be to avoid crossing red lines once in office,” he writes. “It may instead be the decision at the front end whether to sign up at all.” His note of caution seems particularly prescient in light of the New Yorker’s report that former Under-Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, whom Secretary of Defense James Mattis asked to consider coming on as his deputy, withdrew her name from consideration after Trump aides asked her, “What would it take for you to resign?”
Rosenstein isn’t the only one senior-level official whose predicament these past two weeks has put meat on these particular ethical bones. Last week also saw the debasement of National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, who was widely lauded when he entered the administration as a welcome voice for independence and reason. In response to the Washington Post’s report on Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information to Russian officials, McMaster repeatedly declared that the alleged disclosures “did not happen”—or more specifically, that Trump did not disclose sources and methods to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. While McMaster’s statements leave room for the possibility that Trump released classified intelligence information other than sources and methods, given Trump’s tweets the following morning essentially confirming the Post’s report, McMaster’s careful dance was made ridiculous. As Eliot Cohen writes in The Atlantic:
...what Tillerson, Powell, and McMaster said are not quite lies, but they are the kind of parsed half truths that are as bad, and in some cases worse. This is how one’s reputation for veracity is infected by the virulent moral bacteria that cover Donald Trump. Friends will watch, pained and incredulous, as they realize that one simply cannot assume that anything these senior subordinates of the president say is the truth. And having stretched, manipulated, or artfully misrepresented the truth once, these officials will do it again and again. They will be particularly surprised when they learn that most people assume that as trusted subordinates of the president, they lie not as colorfully as he does, but just as routinely. Perhaps the worst will be the moment when these high officials can no longer recognize their own characters for what they once were.
Cohen’s concerns appeared to be borne out at a White House press conference the morning after the Post’s story broke, during which McMaster repeatedly failed to deny clearly that Trump revealed classified information but insisted only that Trump’s conduct was “wholly appropriate,” while telling reporters that Trump was not aware of the source of the intelligence when he disclosed it. The administration’s decision to force the national security advisor out before the public to engage in this tortured non-denial denialism severely degraded McMaster’s reputation for independence and credibility. McMaster, like Rosenstein, had allowed himself to be used.
Rosenstein’s and McMaster’s recent behavior, in other words, seems to lend credence to the fears of those who argued against the possibility of honorable service at the senior political level under Donald Trump. Perhaps the most prescient voice on this side of the debate was that of David Luban, who made the point in Just Security that it is all too easy for our moral footing to slip without our noticing as we become acclimated to new circumstances that would previously have been appalling. There is no guarantee, he argued, that we will be able to recognize the moment of crisis when it comes upon us.
There is also, as Luban notes, a strong element of path-dependence in service. Once you’re inside, it’s easier to stay than to leave, even if you keep an undated letter of resignation in your desk. And if you start to wonder whether the time has come to pull out that letter, it’s fair to wonder: if I leave, who will come in after me? Isn’t it better that I serve reluctantly and do my best to mitigate the damage, rather than give up my position to someone who will serve enthusiastically in the support of an ugly cause?
To be clear, I am not including in this discussion flacks like White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose very purpose is dissembling and who—even if they mind doing so—gamely go out in front of the cameras every day and do it anyway. Rather, I’m writing here about those political appointees who work on substantive areas of policy and law, many of whom have built up reputations for probity and seriousness over the course of careers entirely separate from the Trump administration.
Consider again the case of Rosenstein. The New York Times reports:
[Trump] asked Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to draft a letter documenting Mr. Comey’s shortcomings to leave the impression that it was Mr. Rosenstein’s judgment and not his own that led to the dismissal—an idea that was reinforced by Vice President Mike Pence, who was part of the small group of advisers who planned Mr. Comey’s ouster in near secrecy.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump himself vaporized every version of the Comey story his defenders, including Mr. Pence, had labored so earnestly to put forward. “I was going to fire Comey—my decision. There is no good time to do it, by the way,” Trump told the “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt. “I was going to fire regardless of the recommendation” made by Mr. Rosenstein, he said.
So Rosenstein was asked by the President himself to write a memo describing Comey’s failings, a memo which he apparently knew was a pretext for a decision that had already been made. Rosenstein himself backs up this account in his statement to the House: he told members of Congress that “I learned that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey and sought my advice and input,” though he added that “I chose the issues to include in my memorandum.” From the outside, it seems clear to me that the moment you are asked to write a memo you know to be pretextual to justify a firing that was precooked is the moment to pull out that pre-written letter of resignation, sign it, date it, and leave it on your boss’s desk on the way out the door to talk to the press.
But let’s try to imagine the situation from inside Rosenstein’s head. Rosenstein has been the Deputy Attorney General for two weeks. He has likely had many conversations with Justice Department employees concerned about the direction of the Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions—a polarizing figure and a politician—and who are relieved by the appointment of Rosenstein. President Trump has informed Rosenstein that he intends to dismiss Director Comey, and let’s assume he has not elaborated that he’s got Russia on his mind as a reason. The President’s request is offensive, perhaps, but Rosenstein, like many other people, has long been frustrated by what he sees as Comey’s disregard of Justice Department norms. And let’s imagine he assumes that his memo is just one piece of a larger case for new leadership at the Bureau. So he writes the memo, and he can tell himself that every word of his criticism is true; that he’s not technically recommending Comey’s firing; that Comey is beyond his help now anyway; and that it is thus better for him to keep his powder dry for the next, bigger crisis, which he might actually be able to mitigate. He can also tell himself that he needs to stay in his position in order to protect the men and women of the Department of Justice, who have put so much of their faith in him. And he’s then, in fact, totally surprised—and infuriated—when his memo is cited in public as the reason for the firing and owns the decision. He then expressed his dismay, maybe even threatens to resign, and demands the record be corrected, which it is.
To be clear, some of the above is speculative. And the story looks much different—and uglier—if Trump expressed to Rosenstein the fact that he had the Russia investigation on his mind in requesting Comey’s firing, and if Rosenstein knew anything about Trump’s numerous efforts to reach out to the FBI about the probe—efforts that included asking when the Bureau would make public that Trump himself was not under investigation and requesting that Comey drop the investigation into Michael Flynn and asking the FBI director for a pledge of loyalty. In this scenario, Rosenstein’s decision to draft the memo instead of resigning is far less defensible, even sinister.
McMaster’s situation is somewhat different from Rosenstein’s, for several reasons. To begin with, he was speaking at the press conference in a damage-control capacity on behalf of the intelligence community, on a matter in which complete candor before the public might be impossible. He was not yielding to ill-conceived demands made by the President himself; he was trying to clean up a mess made by the President that could gravely damage U.S. intelligence interests and relationship. The decision to make those statements in the first instance was thus less inherently degrading than Rosenstein’s choice was. The full degradation, rather, came in later, first when the President trampled over McMaster’s carefully hedged denials by tweeting that he had the “absolute right” to share “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” with Russian officials, and then McMaster had to stand at the podium and seek to defend the indefensible without ever actually denying it.
Writing near the end of his life, Machiavelli told a friend, “I love my native city more than my own soul.” As he saw it, service to one’s city is inevitably in conflict with the care of one’s moral being. Citing Machiavelli in his classic essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber emphasizes: “He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics…”
Service in any administration always requires a degree of compromise. The difficult question is when that compromise becomes too great. Weber writes:
[I]t is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.' That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position.
When Weber refers to the “ethic of responsibility,” he means, roughly speaking, the willingness to make compromises and participate in actions that might in themselves be morally dubious in the service of a good end. His point is that to take part in the work of politics, one cannot be a purist; one must be willing to compromise, but that there are limits to the capacity for compromise. Weber wants the politician to be exquisitely ethically aware even as he or she makes trade-offs. It’s this ethical awareness that allows the politician to be able to take a stand when it really matters, and what distinguishes responsibility from what Weber calls “spiritual death.”
Following Weber, we might define two categories of moral compromise presented by political service: first, compromises that are difficult, painful, and even tragic, but from which one emerges with one’s moral sense and one’s sense of self basically intact. But there are also compromises that are so inherently degrading that there is no coming away from them intact. (Luban makes a similar point in his use of Avishai Margalit’s distinction between “bad compromises” and “rotten compromises.”)
The first kind of compromise is hard, and it’s also inherent in government service. People go into government, after all, because they believe in things, and the bureaucracies they serve in do not always reach, from their points of view, the right answers. Think of the Obama administration officials who believed the President should do more to close Guantanamo or the Bush administration officials who believed sincerely in the tough actions the administration took even as it started to back off of them.
The second kind of compromise, however, is corrupting. This second case is exactly what concerns both Luban and Eliot Cohen, in his Atlantic essay: it’s the result of having lost the keenness of one’s moral sense, in having made the ugly choice to begin with, and it breeds further path-dependencies. Once one has made one degrading compromise, after all, it’s easy to slip toward others. And it also destroys the person’s ability to function as a figure worthy of others’ trust in one’ honorable service and efforts to mitigate harm—which may be the very reason that the official accepted an appointment in the first place. I suspect both the public and those within government will be much more hesitant now to trust Rosenstein and McMaster to serve as guardians of their respective institutions going forward.
Some compromises are made on policy grounds. They may be ugly, but they’re within the realm of reasonable policymaking discretion. In contrast, some compromises concern dishonorable personal behavior. In some cases, this might mean not only acting in the support of an ugly idea but personally debasing oneself for it—and the uglier the idea, the more likely it is that one will debase oneself. On the other hand, a person can also debase himself independent of any ugly idea or even any idea at all, which is what appears to have happened to McMaster.
The problem is that it’s not always so easy to distinguish merely painful compromises from degrading or indefensible compromises in the panic of the moment. Weber’s solution to this problem is to focus on a person’s anguish at the compromises. He wants in his ideal politician a consciousness of what he calls “the ethical irrationality of the world”—the fact that good results can sometimes flow from bad or evil actions—and a keen sense of moral pain at those trade-offs. It’s this pain and self-awareness that prevent path-dependencies and allow Weber’s hero to take a stand when it really matters.
This is what’s at work when we see current or former officials proffer up their own anguish for public consumption. Barack Obama wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to the targeted killing program, constantly emphasizing how difficult and painful he found the decision to authorize counterterrorism strikes and how heavily the responsibilities of his office weighed on his shoulders. For a more recent example, look to Comey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his handling of the Clinton email investigation. Comey described his choice to release information on the investigation in the runup to the election as “incredibly painful,” walking the committee through not only his thought process but also his emotional state and underlining the difficulty of the choice before him.
In Obama’s and Comey’s cases, the public display of anguish worked to bolster political legitimacy. By showing their pain and their sense of responsibility, they sought to communicate that they had made difficult choices but not corrupting ones, and so we could trust them to keep making difficult choices going forward.
There are also cases in which former officials proffer themselves up to explain past behavior, seeking absolution through public self-flagellation. One famous example of this behavior is former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, whose interviews in Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War provide a very public look into his moral pain over his role in the Vietnam War. Morris has described McNamara as the Flying Dutchman, traveling the world in search of redemption and never finding it.
The question of whether one is merely tarnishing one’s soul in the service of one’s city or is losing it entirely is deeply personal and may not be clear in real time, so the public exhibition of moral pain acts as a request for reassurance: I’ve shown you my suffering, now tell me I haven’t lost myself. I suspect this is why McNamara’s requests for forgiveness were so magnetic: they placed him in a position of vulnerability before the onlooker, asking for absolution, and it was tempting to display one’s own magnanimity in granting it to him. It’s also why Obama’s moral anguish was politically effective.
But there are some choices from which anguish provides no relief—particularly if the nature of the choice precludes its display. Rosenstein couldn’t well write that he was “mildly nauseous” at having to write the memo. And McMaster can’t very well go on television and talk about how painful it likely is for him to lie—or sort of lie—to protect the intelligence community from the President.
I suspect that Rosenstein and McMaster’s behavior has rattled so many of us because it has served as a reminder that the distinction between painful and indefensible compromises can easily become confused, however anguished one feels. More specifically, it suggests that the specific pressures of the Trump administration push in the direction of turning difficult compromises into the sort of compromises that can destroy a person. Jack made a similar point, noting the President’s “mendacity, norm-breaking, and impetuousness,” along with his apparent demands for personal loyalty over integrity and institutional legitimacy. It is entirely possible that a person could go into the Trump administration with open eyes, prepared to make difficult and painful choices for the sake of mitigating harm, and instead be pushed toward degradation.
All this is, I think, why the personal character of Donald Trump and the cabal around him are central to this conversation. Ben declared flatly that “these are not honorable people.” And in a very real way, the moral questions of service in this administration are questions of character—what it can withstand and what decays it when a person is working on behalf of people who are not honorable. As Machiavelli suggested when he wrote that he loved his city more than his soul, what one does and is willing to do for one’s city directly affects the state of one’s moral self, perhaps irrevocably. But what if you think you’re degrading your soul in the service of your city only to find out you’re lying to your city in the service of Donald Trump?
The language we used to talk about these compromises itself tells a story: it’s the vocabulary of disease and decay. We describe the “corruption” of a person’s judgment. Eliot Cohen writes of a civil servant being “infected by the virulent moral bacteria that cover Donald Trump.” This language communicates that one’s moral destruction most often occurs in a gradual slide rather than a flash of lightning, but it also suggests that moral destruction is contagious. If you work with certain people, they will tarnish your soul by association.
So should you serve under Trump as a person of conscience? The question is twofold, as Machiavelli suggests: first, by serving, are you doing good, or at least forestalling the possibility of something worse? (Remember, Trump gave a speech in Saudi Arabia yesterday that was not a disaster, and the National Security Council process that McMaster runs almost certainly helped prevent that looming catastrophe.) The second question is harder: even if you are doing good, at what point will the damage that service does to your soul become too much for you to bear? And are you even in a position to know?