It’s Time for Former Trump Officials to Come Out Against Him
We need Trump Officials Against Trump.
TAKE YOURSELF BACK TO THE LATE FALL OF 2016. Donald Trump has just won the election. The nation is reeling. How are we supposed to run a superpower with a game-show host at the helm?
There was an understandable line of thinking at the time: We need to have adults in the room.
If we’re really going to hand over the nuclear codes to this guy, the thinking went, it’s better for serious people to have at least some input—people with experience, good judgment, and a baseline interest in the country’s well-being. Even if that means serving someone manifestly unfit for the job.
Fast-forward eight years: The results are in, and they’re not encouraging. We’ve seen a steady stream of former Trump officials come out, on the record, to talk about the former president’s moral depravity, his incompetence, and his basic inability to faithfully execute the duties of his office.
A representative sample from those who worked most closely with the man himself:
John Kelly took to CNN to say the former president “has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law.”
Mark Milley said, in pointed comments generally understood to be about Trump, “We don’t take an oath to a king, or queen, or tyrant, or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator.”
Jim Mattis lamented Trump’s “use of the presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens.” Mattis earlier excoriated Trump for the “abuse” of his office, for his unconstitutional actions, and for trying to divide rather than unify the country.
Bill Barr told PBS that Trump “failed. He didn’t do what the country hoped” after 2020, namely “that he would rise to the occasion and rise to the office.”
John Bolton said flatly, “I think it is a danger for the United States if he gets a second term.”
What we have here is a parade of high-level, serious people (whatever you think about their politics) who served the guy and all came to the same conclusion, independently: He’s nuts.
If we want to stop a Trump restoration and the promised MAGA dictatorship, it’s going to require building a coalition of people who understand the stakes. And there are no messengers better equipped to convey the peril of a Trump presidency than those who lived it firsthand, on the inside.
But wait, haven’t they done that already? Mark Milley posed for a front-page spread in the Atlantic. John Kelly gave a statement to CNN. Others have back-channeled their grave misgivings, off the record, to Puck and Politico.
Hard truth: That’s not enough. I talk to Republican primary voters every week in focus groups, and you know what they don’t read? The Atlantic, Puck, and Politico. Fundamentally, the reason they seem unbothered by Trump’s autocratic tendencies is that a lot of them don’t know about them.
(Some do, and are perfectly fine with it, but that’s a different story.)
You and I may agonize over the state of our politics, but the people I talk to are worried about other things. They don’t process the finer nuances of who’s giving blind quotes to whom. Even if they did, do a couple of sternly worded rebukes feel adequate to this moment in American history?
The answer is no. Which is why it’s time to step up. The people who served Trump directly need to go on the record, as loudly and frequently as possible, about exactly why he should never get near the White House again.
We need John Kelly on primetime TV making the case.
We need Bill Barr speaking plainly in swing state ads, with millions of dollars behind them.
We need Jim Mattis talking straight to camera about what it means to serve the Constitution—and what it means to subvert it.
We need John Bolton on Fox News telling Republicans not to vote for Trump.
And yes, we need Mike Pence saying to all Americans—loudly, over and over again—what he knows to be true about January 6th: that it was a betrayal of America and a disqualifying offense.
Kelly recently made the point that he and others have spoken out about Trump: “I came out and told people the awful things he said about wounded soldiers, and it didn’t have half a day’s bounce.”
“You had his attorney general Bill Barr come out, and not a half a day’s bounce. If anything, his numbers go up,” he continued. “It might even move the needle in the wrong direction. I think we’re in a dangerous zone in our country.”
Kelly is right about being in a dangerous zone, but wrong about moving the needle. He and Barr and others haven’t been talking to the people who need to hear them. They’re talking to legacy media organizations, policymakers, and lots of people who wouldn’t ever vote for Trump. These are high-information people who have already made up their minds.
Instead, Kelly and the other former Trump officials need to reach actual swing voters. Which requires a concerted, sustained campaign to meet people where they are and alert them to the danger we face.
I’m just spitballing here, but they could call this project Trump Officials Against Trump.
The thing about leadership is that you have to lead. Especially when the stakes are this high.
Right now a twice-impeached, four-times-indicted wannabe dictator is promising to use the full weight of the federal government to dismantle our constitutional order. This campaign has been going on for three years and will continue for another ten months.
It will marshal an entire political party, thousands of volunteers, and hundreds of millions of dollars for the sole purpose of returning Trump to office. Of course, a couple of TV hits and quotes to intellectual magazines won’t register when arrayed against this force.
For these former Trump officials, telling the truth about Trump can’t just be a position they take. It ought to be a cause: a sustained project that they pursue with as much focus and vigor as they applied to the rest of their professional duties.
I don’t mean to make this sound easy. It isn’t. Some former Trump officials are lifelong conservatives who have a deep institutional attachment to the Republican party and a bone-deep interest in opposing Democrats. Others spent their careers in the military, studiously avoiding partisan politics. It makes all the sense in the world for them to want to stay silent.
But this moment demands more of all of us, as Americans. If ever there were a time for broad-shouldered leadership, this is it.
We need former Trump officials—people of conscience, who have not acquiesced to the authoritarianism of it all—to stand as one and to speak plainly to the American people. Again and again, until every voter has heard their voices.
Generals Kelly and Mattis, Vice President Pence, Attorney General Barr, Ambassador Bolton: The primary season has ended before it even began. Donald Trump will be the Republican party’s nominee. It’s time to go to work. Your country needs you.
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