Guest Opinion: Bureaucrats defying Trump have got it all wrong

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Charles Lane

President Donald Trump has been destabilizing U.S. politics, and the country's position in international affairs, since he took office.

For the unelected but conscientious officials who serve under, and owe their legal duties to, the office of the president, the dilemma from Day One has been: What's a bureaucrat to do?

Bill Dudley, who until last year was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, provided one sort of answer in an Tuesday opinion article for Bloomberg Opinion: He urged the Fed to defy Trump openly and hasten his political downfall.

Trump's tariffs on China (and others) threaten economic growth, but to counteract that by easing monetary policy, as the Fed has done, only enables the president to pursue his trade war, Dudley argued.

Therefore, the central bank must refuse to ease; if it reduces job, income and investment prospects for Americans, Trump, not the Fed, "will own the consequences of his actions." Not only was Dudley untroubled by the use of Fed power to undercut the president in an election year, but also he declared doing so consistent with the Fed's legal mandate.


"If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome," he wrote, "then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020." Apparently, the Fed must destroy the U.S. economy - and its own political impartiality - to save them.

Economic policy experts, appropriately, recoiled. Former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers said it "might be the least responsible statement by a former financial official in decades."

Dudley's proposal did, however, have one advantage: transparency and forthrightness. Compare the passive-aggressive resistance former FBI Director James Comey offered before, and just after, his firing by Trump in May 2017, described by the Justice Department inspector general in a highly critical report released Thursday.

In a fateful Feb. 14, 2017, private meeting, Trump sounded out Comey about dropping the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn; this appalled the FBI chief, but he neither questioned the president at the meeting nor informed his superiors later nor resigned on principle.

He stayed on, sitting noncommittally through awkward meetings with Trump - and writing memos to the file. Then, when Trump fired him, Comey leaked a memo's contents to The New York Times via a friend, with the goal, subsequently realized, of triggering the appointment of a special counsel.

The ambiguous results of that investigation - like those of Comey's 2016 efforts to fine-tune public perceptions of the non-prosecution of Hillary Clinton for her email misadventure - have resulted in, well, a mixed legacy for Comey.

Admirers see him as making the best of a tight situation; the inspector general brands his policy-driven leak a "dangerous" bending of rules designed to keep the FBI strictly apolitical.

Whatever you think about that, Comey's rationale for leaking the way he did is puzzling. After his firing, he was free to hold a news conference accusing Trump of obstructing justice, as the inspector general acknowledged. Comey favored roundabout disclosure because speaking out would generate an unbearable press scrum - "like feeding seagulls at the beach," as he put it.


The country and Comey would be better off if he had at least tried to go through channels first, then blown his whistle openly, damn the consequences. Which brings us to former defense secretary Jim Mattis, and a third possible answer to the bureaucrat's dilemma: limit the damage Trump does while you're in office, resign over policy disagreements when they get too wide - but refrain from overt, public condemnation of the commander in chief during or after your service.

Mattis stuck to that plan even as he rolled out his new book last week. An excerpt in The Wall Street Journal implied, not very obliquely, disgust with Trump's toxic management style and his failure to "kee[p] faith with our allies" - but never named the president.

Mattis never crossed the lines of hypocrisy, disloyalty or dishonesty. The downside of this assiduous reputation-preservation is that Mattis stands accused of lending "his honor and integrity to the Trump administration," as Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer who has written extensively about civil-military relations, put it in an interview last week with The Washington Post. Then again, if Mattis did speak out more explicitly, even his words might eventually degenerate into so much grist for Twitter and cable television.

Even in far less dysfunctional administrations, it's hard for bureaucrats to balance career goals, public responsibility and personal integrity.

Maybe that is why the Constitution does not rely on the bureaucracy but on other institutions to check presidential excess: term limits, courts, Congress and, ultimately, elections. The people have already chastened Trump by ending his party's control of Congress in 2018 and might well oust him altogether next year.

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