If You Work for Trump, Should You Quit?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Once upon a time, the question was whether you should go to work for a president you didn’t agree with or admire. Now, as Donald Trump’s relationships with some members of his own Cabinet have become strained, the question is not so much whether you should go but whether you should stay. Bloomberg Opinion columnists Stephen Carter, Eli Lake and Virginia Postrel recently discussed that and related employment questions.
How is the calculus different when deciding to take a job as opposed to leave it?
Stephen Carter: My father always preached the old-fashioned gospel, since heavily rewritten, that when the president of the United States asks you to serve, you serve. Leaving is a little different, because you’ve made a human capital investment in whatever the job is. If you’re a lawyer, your skills may be cheaply transferable. If you analyze imagery for the National Reconnaissance Office, then maybe less so.
In the old days, there was loyalty to the employer to consider too, but Don Draper answered that one. In the particular case of a political appointee, there may be a certain ethical duty not to embarrass the political appointer, but that duty only counsels leaving quietly (as opposed to taking that huge book deal) — it doesn’t mean you should never leave at all.
Eli Lake: The argument for senior officials resigning from the Trump administration is that it will spur a political crisis and accelerate his removal from office. Republicans who have held their tongues will join Trump’s critics. Democrats and Never Trump Republicans will become bolder. His base will not leave him, but he will be too politically crippled to govern. That’s the hope, anyway.
Virginia Postrel: Taking a job is an expression of hope. Once you’re in a job, you go from the outside view of imagining what you might accomplish to the inside view of knowing what the real constraints are. The workaday reality also sets in. How interesting you find the work, how much you like and respect your colleagues and boss, and how much you see your family start to matter. Quitting is an acknowledgment that the costs outweigh the benefits.
How can you know whether your actions — staying or leaving — have an impact?
Stephen: I don’t believe in resigning to make an impact. I’ve always admired the way Secretary of State Cyrus Vance quietly resigned from Jimmy Carter’s administration only after the operation that provoked it, the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. People who resign and then hit the talk-show circuit strike me as people who probably should not have had those jobs in the first place. (Getting fired is different.)
As to staying, you make your impact if you can do your work effectively. With particular reference to Trump, I suppose that even top-level appointees must fear that whatever they think is the policy this morning will change by this afternoon. That risk significantly reduces the likely impact of their work.
Eli: There is no guarantee that your or anyone else’s resignation will trigger a political crisis. Trump has survived scandals, missteps and blunders before. His approval ratings among Republicans remain in the high 80s.
If you stay, on the other hand, you have at least a chance to mitigate bad policies or instincts. Two examples: when National Security Adviser John Bolton announced this week that Trump’s invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Washington would be postponed until next year, and when H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, persuaded the president last year not to pull out of Afghanistan.
Virginia: You can’t know for sure, but the inside view (as opposed to our outside view) gives you a sense of the likelihood. The challenge is not to delude yourself — to look at the question coldly rather than to exaggerate your singular importance.
Is quitting a high-level government job ultimately selfless or selfish?
Stephen: My father worked in Lyndon Johnson’s administration. He quit when I was a kid, and I never knew why. Many years later, he told me that Johnson had lied to his face, sending him to negotiate with an interest group and then, when the deal was made, yanking the rug out. This was the last of several straws. The act was neither selfish nor selfless. It was simply a recognition that he could no longer work for a president he could not trust.
I suspect this is the same situation in which many Trump appointees find themselves, although perhaps their enthusiasm quotient was lower to begin with. Argue if you like about the president’s outrageous rhetoric. There can reasonably come a point when Trump’s own tendency to bounce from one position to another, tweeting all the while, makes it impossible for you to do your job. At that point, leaving isn’t selfish or selfless. It’s a recognition of reality.
Eli: Resignation is a shot that can only be fired once. If you are going to resign from the Trump administration, it should be linked explicitly to a policy that you cannot tolerate: formally recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, or the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And then if you go on TV or write an op-ed warning the president about his behavior, would that really make a difference? Trump has shown time and again that he loathes backing down in the face of public criticism.
Virginia: Every decision about whether to leave a job implicitly demands that you answer two questions: Why am I in this job? and Who do I want to be? This second question implicates your integrity. Does the job allow you to maintain the self you aspire to be?
Maintaining your integrity is a selfish act. For people whose identity entails a commitment to broader principles — to truth-telling or the constitutional order or scientific rigor — it is also public-spirited.
How is the decision different when the job is in the public sector versus the private sector?
Stephen: I’m not sure there’s a relevant difference. Whether one is the public or the private sector, it’s not unreasonable to make a moral assessment of the employer before taking a job.
Eli: In government, you take an oath to uphold the Constitution. If it is your assessment that the president is violating the Constitution, you have an obligation to inform Congress and the public. That responsibility does exist in the private sector, but it’s not nearly as pronounced.
Virginia: In the private sector, and in many routine government jobs as well, plenty of people work simply to support themselves and their families. They may enjoy their work and appreciate their colleagues, but the overarching mission isn’t critical. Compensation and day-to-day conditions matter more.
Working for the president of the United States — regardless of who that might be — is rarely about the money. People do it for other reasons: to advance a specific policy or worldview, to bolster their resumes, to enjoy the prestige, to witness history, to answer the call of patriotic duty. Most undoubtedly have a mixture of motivations. So the reasons to leave the job change as well.
How important is it to believe in what you’re doing?
Stephen: I couldn’t do a job I didn’t believe in. But I don’t know that I can prod preference into principle.
Eli: Very important.
Virginia: Every job entails compromises. They may be trivialities only a diva would resent, or they may corrupt who you are. The question of integrity is more fundamental than how long you can put up with a horrible boss — and Donald Trump is, by most accounts, a nightmare boss. People may rationalize working for Trump as long as they can advance the one thing they care about, whether that is cutting taxes or curtailing immigration. But others have identities that demand commitment to broader principles.
An intelligence official must give the president the best available information, regardless of whether he wants to hear it. An economist must use sound data and reasonable assumptions. A lawyer must uphold the law. Experts will disagree, of course, but they owe the country their best judgment, without manipulating the facts to placate the boss. If the boss demands that you violate your personal or professional ethics, it’s time to quit.
Leaving under such circumstances is simultaneously selfless and selfish. It puts the long-term public good above your immediate prestige, income and power. And it preserves your personal integrity.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility.”
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast, and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour.”
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