Pollak: In Praise of the Principled Resignation

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Gerry Broome/AP

The media have decided that since Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned on Thursday, followed by Special Envoy Brent McGurk, over President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, the republic is in danger.

On the contrary, it has never been stronger. The principled resignation, a staple of British politics, has been dormant in the U.S. for far too long. Its return heralds a restoration of character and credibility in American democracy.

Until the past few days, the only memorable national resignations of note happened more than twenty years ago, when President Bill Clinton signed a landmark welfare reform bill and two senior officials quit in protest.

Alaska’s Sarah Palin also famously resigned from her state’s oil and gas commission to protest her own Republican Party’s corruption. That established her as a champion of transparency and propelled her to the 2008 presidential ticket.

But there have been few resignations on matters of principle since then. The dominant pattern has been for senior officials to cling to power, even when that has meant abandoning and even opposing everything in they had once believed.

Samantha Power is the archetypal case. An academic authority on genocide, she stayed silent when the Obama administration did nothing to stop genocide in Syria. (She duly earned a promotion to UN ambassador.)

Or take Harold Koh, former Yale Law School dean, who argued passionately against the expansion of executive power when George W. Bush was president, then defended Obama’s unconstitutional war in Libya.

As the New York Times noted: “Mr. Koh seems to be a different person. Just over two years ago, he became legal adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State Department, and in that job, he has become the administration’s defender of the right to stay engaged in a conflict against Libya without Congressional approval.”

Koh could have resigned, but staying in Obama and Clinton’s good graces was more important than defending principles or the Constitution.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates evidently detested Obama’s policies and management style. He left the Obama administration quietly in 2011, then ripped his former boss in a memoir in 2014. In it, Gates described how he fantasized about quitting the administration, and complained that Obama made national security decisions for political reasons. Yet when he had the chance to speak up, he held his tongue. Ironically, he called his memoir Duty.

An even worse case was former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. When President Trump issued his “travel ban” after taking office, she refused to enforce it, claiming it was unconstitutional and no court would uphold it. She was completely wrong — but even if she held that belief as a matter of good faith, Yates should have resigned honorably. Instead, she rebelled, inspiring other civil servants in the “deep state” to “resist” the new administration.

By resigning and stating their reasons for doing so, Mattis and McGurk dealt the administration a political setback. But they also strengthened it because, as Mattis implied, they allowed the president to replace them with officials closer to his views. And rather than staying on half-heartedly, or undermining Trump from within, they made their differences public, allowing voters to understand the issues at stake directly, without relying on the media’s filter.

It is a credit to Trump’s own straightforward style, however maligned by critics, that policy differences are now out in the open. Principled resignations are back — and, with them, a sense of transparency, and honor, in Washington.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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