Former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly — the man who enthusiastically presided over the separation of children at the border; defended
PresidentTrump’s lies and accommodation toward Russia; and enabled arguably the most destructive president in our history — told the Atlantic: “The vast majority of people who worked in the White House were decent people who were doing the best they could to serve the nation.” He added, “They’ve unfortunately paid quite a price for that in reputation and future employment. . . . They deserve better than that, because they kept the train from careening off the tracks.” This is dead wrong. These people are not victims. Their reputations have been besmirched for the best of reasons: They participated in an administration unparalleled in its corruption, meanness, racism and authoritarianism.
The excuse that things would have been worse without White House aides is weak, at best. Would we have lost even more than the 312,000 Americans who died from covid-19 if not for them? Would we have been even more lax in failing to respond to Russia’s interference in our election, its bounties on U.S. troops or its hacking of our government?
Self-congratulatory aides did not stop the child-separation policy. Nor did they prevent Trump from trying to delegitimize the election. Or from lying about hush money to pay off an adult-film actress. Or from failing to warn the public early on that covid-19 was far worse than the flu. Or from refusing to wear a mask. Or from encouraging Chinese President Xi Jinping in his efforts to place millions of Uighurs in concentration camps. Or from spewing more than 20,000 lies. . . . Or from defaming our intelligence community. Or from using tear gas on peaceful protesters outside the White House. I could go on, but you get the point: Their hands are dirty because they enabled a dishonest president and allowed him to continue his reign of chaos, death and authoritarianism.
The number of senior officials who quit on principle is close to zero. The number of former Cabinet officials who came forward during the impeachment to give testimony is zero. In many cases, aides personally broke norms and laws. How many Hatch Act violations did they commit?
There were a handful of officials who behaved commendably and arguably did prevent greater harm. Christopher Krebs, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, did his best to shoot down disinformation about the election and call out efforts to discredit the results. He was fired as a result, a badge of honor in my book. Likewise, we saw honorable public servants such as Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman and Marie Yovanovitch step forward to provide testimony about Trump’s impeachable conduct at the expense of their jobs. Christopher Wray performed heroically as director of the FBI. Beyond that, however, it is hard to think of someone in this administration who did more good than harm.
The notion that a lowly aide is exempt from condemnation because he or she “just” typed memos or “just" made travel arrangements or “just” set up meetings is misguided. When a regime routinely sets out to undermine our democracy, neglect its obligations to defend the Constitution and lie, it must rely on all the middle- and low-level aides to do all the tasks that produce its horrible results.
That these people are suffering damage to their credibility and condemnation from their fellow Americans is a positive sign our body politic still retains an appreciation for democracy and a moral compass.