A Time to Speak

February 13, 2020
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(Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Almost three years ago, I wrote an editorial defending those who had joined the Trump administration out of motives of patriotism—individuals who had good reason to believe that their presence in the administration could do some good for the country:

Donald Trump is an embarrassment. It would be better for the country if he were president for at most one term. It would be desirable that his manner of governing go down in history as an aberration; that his form of conservatism be judged a detour from the broad path of a mostly praiseworthy movement; and that his type of Republicanism be seen as a cul-de-sac from which the GOP finds an honorable exit.

But he is our president and presumably will be our president for the next three and a half years. Many individuals we admire have joined his administration, or have stayed on since his taking over the reins of the executive. They therefore work, if only at times willy-nilly and at very different degrees of remove, at his direction. These individuals signed on or stayed on only incidentally to work for Donald Trump. They signed on or stayed on to serve their country.

These honorable men and women have a tough job . . . They are patriots—real patriots, in contradistinction to the juvenile “patriots” of cable news and talk radio. They deserve encouragement, support, and gratitude. . . .

When, after Trump, the party and nation reemerge into the sunlit uplands of a happier politics, those who took responsibility during these difficult years will have a role to play. Like Anthony Eden and Duff Cooper before them in the Great Britain of the 1930s, these men and women should serve in office as long as they can do good. If they find it necessary to leave as a matter of principle, they should of course do so. But in either case, they will deserve the thanks of their fellow citizens.

I anticipated these men and women having a role to play “after Trump.” We are of course not yet after Trump. But we face a crisis now. As we see President Trump doing more damage than ever to the rule of law, shredding norms of decency and civility, and endangering the health of the institutions of our free government, those honorable individuals who did serve in his administration have, I think, a special responsibility to speak up in this moment.

Because it is precisely those who served his administration from good motives who now have a duty to to set the record straight as to what the president did and tried to do, to address his depredations (both new and ongoing), and to give the citizenry guidance as we move towards November.

Too many of these public servants have kept too quiet for too long out of a mistaken sense of propriety. If Trump’s actions since the conclusion of his impeachment trial have not demonstrated to these patriots the nation’s need to hear from them, then nothing will.

If you are a lawyer who served in the Trump administration, you owe it to your countrymen—and to yourself—to speak up for the rule of law now.

If you are a military person who served, you owe it to those still under arms—and yourself—to speak up on behalf of the service members Trump is trashing and the military norms he’s endangering now.

If you are a public servant in any field—a diplomat or a bureaucrat, a political appointee, or a career official—who served in this administration, you owe your fellow citizens the truthful judgment of what this president has done, is doing, and is likely to do, and what the effects of his actions are likely to be.

Because if you served inside the administration and saw things that were pathological for your country, not saying so now will make it more likely that the cancer will spread. You did your patriotic duty in serving this administration while you could. And for that you have the thanks of a grateful nation.

But your work is not complete. Duty requires that you now to tell the country what you saw inside and your judgment of what you are now seeing. This is an unpleasant duty—surely it is a burden you would rather not have. But it exists nonetheless.

There is, we are told, “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

We’ve had enough silence from enough good people.

Now is a time to speak.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.