Will Those Who Work for Trump Ever Face Accountability?

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, second from right, and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, right, speak together during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

The political world remains consumed with discovering the identity of the anonymous Trump administration official who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last week saying that they are part of a group of Trump aides who "have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office." The president himself is certainly consumed with it; he called the Times' decision to publish the piece "treason" and demanded that the Justice Department deploy the federal government's resources to ferret out the official, apparently unaware that disloyalty is not a crime. Meanwhile, members of Trump's administration have rushed to proclaim that it isn't them, lest Trump doubt their devotion; ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley went so far as to write her own op-ed making clear she was not the author of the Times op-ed, just so the boss would know.

There are reasonable arguments for why the act of speaking out anonymously can be viewed as heroic or villainous. But the more important question is what kind of accountability will come to those whose identities we know: all the people who joined this administration, defended this president, and enabled this degraded period in American history to take place.

Imagine it's ten years from now. We don't know the extent of the damage Trump will have caused, or in what manner he will depart office. But what are we likely to say about those who are now laboring in his service? Will they have trouble getting other jobs or running for office? Will they find that wherever they go, people will say to them, "You went to work for Donald Trump. How can we possibly trust your judgment?" Will the words "former Trump administration official" carry the appropriate stigma, like "convicted felon" or "sex offender"?

Because that's certainly what should happen. In a just world, everyone who made the decision to work for Trump or publicly advocate his cause would find themselves a personal and professional pariah for the rest of their days.

In some small ways we've seen hints of what could be. You might remember that two and a half months ago (yes, that's all it was), Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely asked to leave a restaurant, leading to horrified condemnation of how "uncivil" liberals were being to Trump administration officials. And apparently young Trupmkins in Washington have trouble finding romance once prospective dates discover what they do for a living. So tragic.

I'm sure when this is all over, the people who worked for Trump will tell themselves that like the anonymous op-ed writer, they were part of the internal resistance—or if not that, then at the very least they were trying to keep government functioning smoothly despite whatever surreal whim popped into the president's addled brain during his daily Fox & Friends viewing. Accepting a job offer from Trump was an act of patriotism, they'll say. Imagine how much worse things would have been if I wasn't there!

And Republicans everywhere will find a way to distance themselves from Trump. We saw what happened after George W. Bush departed the Oval Office with approval ratings in the 20s, leaving two disastrous wars and an economic calamity behind him. Talk to a Republican in 2009 and you were likely to hear them say, "Bush was never a real conservative anyway, and I was terribly critical of him. You know, privately. To myself, in the car alone sometimes. But I was." Yet now, people see Bush as professional, upstanding, and restrained. The comparison with Trump has thoroughly rehabilitated him, and no one has any shame about saying they worked for Bush.

Repellent as the thought might be, I fear something similar will happen with Trump. Not the rehabilitation—I'm fairly certain that no ensuing series of events will ever lead history to judge him as anything other than one of the worst presidents, if not the absolute worst. But the mark on those around him will quickly fade.

That's partly because there is simply never any accountability on the right. We see it over and over again: Apart from ideological apostasy, almost nothing can get you cast out of official Republican circles. Elliot Abrams, for example, was an Iran-Contra figure who got a pardon for his crimes, but that didn't stop him from being appointed to a high position in the George W. Bush administration. He was in line for a key role in this administration too, until it was discovered he had been publicly critical of Trump. John Lott is a serial fraudster who continues to make appearances on conservative news outlets and has his "research" regularly cited by high-ranking Republicans. Stay loyal to the cause, and you'll continue to be rewarded.

In addition, there are simply too few Republicans who didn't become complicit with Trump to punish those who did. The population of "Never Trumpers" is minuscule; they'll be able to hold their reunions in Bill Kristol's rec room, with plenty of space to spread out. Nearly everyone in the party will carry the same moral stain, so they'll all have an interest in convincing the world there's no stain at all.

And they'll have plenty of institutions and allies to make sure their path out of the wreckage of America's government is a smooth and well-remunerated one. Take someone like Sanders. If justice prevailed, not only would she, one of the most spectacularly shameless liars in American political history, not be able to get a dinner reservation, she'd be shunned and shamed wherever she went. But that won't happen. She'll open a communications consulting firm and rake in millions from corporations and Republican candidates looking for her wisdom on how to bamboozle the public, probably with a regular Fox News gig on the side. Republicans will speak tributes to her loyalty, her skill, her unflagging service.

The only thing that might prevent that is sweeping, emphatic defeat this November and in 2020. If Donald Trump wrecks the Republican Party, leaving it with a fraction of the power it now enjoys, then there's at least the possibility that those who helped him do it might share in the blame. But something tells me they'll be fine. 

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