When Rex Tillerson agreed to become President Trump’s first Secretary of State, I was concerned, but slightly relieved. As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson had plenty of experience working closely with high-ranking government officials from all over the globe, most especially in the Middle East. Was he really qualified for the job? I wasn’t sure, but I was grateful that the position didn’t go to someone whose only qualification was their undying loyalty to Trump. Tillerson at least knew how to handle the personalities and egos of world leaders, and that counted for something in my book.
I was even happier when former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley agreed to become Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. And I was downright ecstatic when General James Mattis was nominated and subsequently confirmed as Trump’s first Secretary of Defense. I had similar reactions to the appointments of General H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor and Gina Haspel as Director of the CIA.
When Trump assumed office, some on the left proposed that we should shame and shun those who chose to work for him. The goal, it seemed, was to discourage other potential candidates from accepting any position that Trump might offer them.
I didn’t agree with that approach. No matter how much I disapproved of President Trump, his boorish behavior, and most of his policy objectives, I never thought it wise to scare capable candidates away from the White House. America still needed a functional government, and it wasn’t going to get one if the only people willing to serve under Trump were inexperienced loyalists who had no business serving in any presidential administration.
Had it not been for the likes of Tillerson, Mattis, and Haspel, Trump’s first and only term could have gone a lot worse than it did. They were the nuts and bolts that held the ship together when Trump’s reckless behavior threatened to sink it, and I’m grateful that they were willing to perform that service in spite of the reputational risks it required them to accept. They knew perfectly well that joining Trump’s team would invite intense scrutiny and criticism, but they also knew that the nation as a whole could suffer lasting, irreversible damage without competent people working behind the scenes to ensure that the government would continue to fulfill its most fundamental responsibilities.
Over the past week, however, some progressives and anti-Trump Republicans have resurrected the idea of punishing those who they claim are guilty of enabling Trump and furthering his agenda, including those who worked in his administration.
Now to be fair, that idea isn’t entirely without merit. We’ve been lied to repeatedly by numerous members of the Trump regime, most frequently by Trump himself. There’s also the matter of officials like Mike Pompeo fueling baseless speculation that the results of this year’s election might be illegitimate. And let’s not forget about the more than 600 children who have yet to be reunited with their parents after being separated from them at the border, a matter that cannot simply be glossed over as though it were the result of some minor clerical error. It’s not at all unreasonable for anyone in this country, progressive or otherwise, to expect consequences for the men and women responsible for those transgressions.
That said, critics calling for current and former administration officials to be held accountable should proceed with extreme caution.
We don’t know if another Donald Trump will ever be elected president, but it’s entirely plausible that someone like him will come along again to compete for the presidency. And if that person succeeds, we will need competent, qualified leaders willing to step up to the plate and keep the government running until that president has been removed from or voted out of office.
That’s why it’s important for anti-Trump activists to refrain from indiscriminately targeting anyone and everyone who ever drew a weekly paycheck from this administration. Trying to destroy the reputations and careers of those who chose to serve under Trump not out of loyalty to him, but out of a sense of duty to their country and the public at large, will send out the message that you, too, could have your life ruined if you choose to work for an administration run by a polarizing, provocative president.
That’s a dangerous message to send. Politicians like Trump don’t step down when they can’t find qualified professionals to fill open positions. They simply scroll down their lists of candidates, jumping from one name to the next, until they find enough benchwarmers willing to play ball. To an authoritarian leader like Trump, who clearly values obedience over intelligence, experience, and character, it doesn’t really matter whether those candidates are suited for the jobs they’ve been hired to perform—but it should matter to us.
If we ever do end up with another president like Trump, we need the best people we can get in the positions that matter most. That won’t happen if the most qualified candidates are convinced that they’ll be hung out to dry for answering the call to serve. The administration’s critics must keep that in mind before embarking on any quests for vengeance. It’s always good to hold government officials accountable for conduct that is blatantly immoral or potentially criminal but using guilt by association as an excuse to make the life of every former Trump official impossibly difficult would be going too far, and the potential repercussions could prove much more severe than the country is prepared to handle.