John Bellinger ’82 was the legal adviser for the Department of State and the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He previously served as counsel for national security matters at the Department of Justice and as special assistant to the director of central intelligence.
To serve or not to serve: That is the question. Princetonians have long answered the call to be “in the nation’s service” by joining the federal government as career civil servants or political appointees. But serving in the federal government under President Donald Trump raises more than the usual dilemmas about the costs and benefits of public service. Experienced career civil servants are considering leaving the government, and potential political appointees are increasingly reluctant to accept positions in an administration led by a president who makes offensive and divisive statements, pursues controversial domestic and foreign policies, and is mired in a widening special-counsel investigation.
The Trump administration has had particular difficulties filling senior national-security and foreign-policy positions (assistant secretary and above). Many veterans of previous Republican administrations, who normally would be expected to staff the administration, were deeply concerned by the president’s erratic statements on national-security issues (such as Russia, ISIS, and torture) during the election campaign and his unwillingness to seek foreign-policy advice. Many of these officials signed letters during the campaign opposing Mr. Trump’s nomination, including one I organized in August 2016 stating that he lacked the “character, values, and experience” to be president.
The apprehension of national-security officials has intensified during President Trump’s first nine months in office as he has alienated close foreign allies, questioned long-standing alliances, threatened military attacks against North Korea and Venezuela, disparaged his law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, fired his FBI director, attacked and humiliated his own attorney general, and lashed out on Twitter at the press and other perceived enemies, while publicly praising and privately meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. As a result, many former Republican national-security officials have not sought — and have declined — senior national-security appointments, especially in the White House.
A smaller number of former national-security officials have been willing to accept positions in the administration, including some who did not support Mr. Trump as a candidate but now feel they have a duty to serve the country. Nonetheless, some of these have been blackballed by White House staff, and by the president himself, if they signed any of the letters or made statements critical of Mr. Trump during the campaign. The president reportedly vetoed Elliott Abrams, a veteran Republican diplomat whom Rex Tillerson had chosen to be deputy secretary of state, after he learned that Abrams had written articles critical of Trump.
Some younger Republicans, especially former congressional staffers, have accepted junior national-security positions in the administration as special assistants and senior advisers. Many do not want to miss the opportunity to serve in the first Republican administration in eight years and may be less concerned that they will be asked to implement controversial policies or do harm to their reputations while serving in supporting positions.
Pundits and former government officials have differed over whether officials should take appointments in the Trump administration. My former State Department colleague Eliot Cohen famously warned potential appointees to “stay away” from it. But New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued in an op-ed titled “You Must Serve Trump” that Republican critics of President Trump have a moral responsibility to serve in order to guide the administration toward sensible policies.
When I am asked for my advice, my answers depend on whether the individual is a serving career official, a potential nonpolitical employee, or a potential political appointee. I urge current career officials not to leave the government, even if they are disheartened as their agencies are defunded and dismantled, important government programs are terminated, new initiatives they find repugnant are commenced, the “bureaucracy” is criticized, and they themselves are sidelined. This is perhaps the hour of greatest need for knowledgeable and experienced career officials because they have the access and opportunity to educate new political appointees about the value of many government programs. Their service in the Trump administration may be much less satisfying than their prior work and even unpleasant at times. It may result in interpersonal conflicts with political appointees and could even create professional risk, but career officials are needed more than ever to correct misperceptions that inexperienced appointees may harbor and to push back on ill-considered initiatives.
I am not suggesting that career officials should be some kind of “fifth column” or “deep state” actively undermining and resisting administration initiatives. But just as the framers of our Constitution intended the Senate to be a check on the potential political volatility of the House of Representatives, career officials, by virtue of knowledge and foresight gained from years of government service, are necessary to provide facts and explain repercussions. Career officials have always served this function in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Confronted with a president and Cabinet with an unprecedented lack of experience in the federal government and global affairs, we need veterans to remain in government to provide their guidance. The political leadership may not heed wise counsel from career officials who remain in government. But it is even less likely to heed counsel from those who leave.
To potential new nonpolitical officials (including new Princeton graduates), I offer a similar message: Your government needs you. Do not shy away from public service because you may disapprove of President Trump and his policies. It is understandable to be skittish, and it’s probably prudent to avoid joining the specific government offices that will be implementing initiatives you find most objectionable. But the federal government and the American people still need well-educated younger officials to administer core programs, including lawyers at the Department of Justice, financial experts at the Treasury Department, and new Foreign Service officers at the Department of State. And in most cases, entry-level staff can avoid the chaos and controversy swirling above their heads.
Both veteran and new career officials may ultimately decide that it is too unpleasant to stay in government, or that they are no longer comfortable implementing policies they oppose, but they may be less likely than political appointees to risk their reputations by remaining in government. Indeed, they are more likely to be lauded for their public service, even more so than for leaving.
For potential political appointees, the dilemma is harder, because the decision is even more of a moral choice. Their work environment not only is likely to be chaotic and contentious, but they face the possibility of tarnishing their personal integrity and reputations by association with the president, his repugnant statements and Twitter attacks, and increasingly controversial policies. It is hard to recommend unreservedly that anyone seek a senior political appointment in this administration, at least in the White House or in many of the national-security agencies.
Having said this, I know many experienced and principled former colleagues who have taken political positions because they believe it is their duty to help provide stability to the government and the country in a time of political crisis. If they don’t accept the call to serve, who will? I applaud these individuals for their willingness to serve and sleep better knowing they are trying to encourage the president and his administration to make wise decisions. Many of these officials wrestled with the decision whether to serve, and some have been willing to accept positions only in agencies more independent from the White House.
Political appointees in the administration must accept their positions knowing that they may have to resign rather than implement White House policies with which they strongly disagree (or to be fired if they do not do so). This is always a theoretical possibility for political and career officials in any administration, but it is a more acute consideration for individuals considering appointments now. Political appointees must be cautious not to allow their own moral compasses to become disoriented and thereby acquiesce incrementally in policies farther from their own true north.
The chaos and controversy of the election and President Trump’s first nine months have made many Princeton graduates hesitant to serve in the executive branch. If a large number of qualified Princetonians sit out this administration, it will be a loss for the federal government and ultimately for Princeton. Even if they decline to work in the administration, alumni can and should find other ways — in the private sector, academia, and civil society — to be “in the nation’s service,” whether by publicly critiquing administration policies or by offering guidance and support to those who have chosen to serve in the federal government in these difficult times.