White House resistance to Trump is unlike anything before, Berkeley politics expert argues

A photo of President Trump

A UC Berkeley professor examines the claim that President Donald Trump’s staff are secretly resisting his agenda . (Courtesy whitehouse.gov)

Is there a widespread conspiracy in the White House to undermine and “resist” President Donald Trump, as one anonymous senior official claims in the New York Times? The claim, if true, is unprecedented in American history, according to one UC Berkeley expert on American bureaucracy

 Sean Gailmard, a UC Berkeley professor of political science who has studied the history of the executive branch and the political responsiveness of the bureaucracy, said that administrators resisting presidential policies is nothing new: generals going back to the Revolutionary War have had their own agenda, two of Andrew Jackson’s treasury secretaries refused to remove deposits from a government bank and Henry Kissinger famously ignored many Richard Nixon’s orders.

 “What’s different here is that this appears to be a widespread and generalized movement that is a reaction to the president’s competence and the president’s values,” Gailmard said. “It’s not a reaction to specific policy disagreements or an ideological conflict on one issue.”

 But Gailmard said he also doubts the motives of whomever wrote the op-ed.

 “If you want to wield this power effectively — and it can certainly be done — you want to keep it quiet. You don’t want to shine a spotlight on the fact that you are undermining the man who is supposedly the titular boss,” Gailmard said. “You know, that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

 Gailmard spoke to Berkeley News about the New York Times op-ed, Bob Woodward’s new book raising many of the same issues and the future of the Trump administration. His responses have been edited for clarity.

In the past couple of days, we’ve had excerpts of Bob Woodward’s book come out describing scenes where aides to President Trump take papers off his desk to keep him from acting on them, and this op-ed in the New York Times saying there is this secret resistance inside the administration. Based on what you’ve studied, what stands out to you about all this?

A photo of Professor Sean Gailmard.

UC Berkeley Professor Sean Gailmard is the author of Learning While Governing: Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch, and has studied the federal bureaucracy for more than 20 years.

 In some ways, you can kind of put this on a continuum from everyday efforts by appointees or career bureaucrats who always manage to have conflicts with the people in charge — the president, in this case — about what they think ought to be done. They have their own visions of the right direction to go. The right things to do and the right ways to do them. They have always worked their hardest within the confines of their oath of office to get done what they want done even if in some cases that is different from the president. Examples go back as long as the United States.

 What’s different about this — and what’s unprecedented — is that the op-ed writer represents this as a widespread movement and a generalized movement. This isn’t about a specific policy disagreement with the president. This isn’t about a specific policy area. There are a million examples of military generals who want to go one direction with operational planning or missions and a president who wants to go a different direction, and then the generals try to manipulate the information the president has about the proposals and things like that.

 We certainly have our share of it, but what’s different here is that at least as this is represented — if you take it at face value, and I’m not sure I do — is that this is a widespread, a generalized movement.

Why don’t you take this at face value? What makes you skeptical about the claims in the op-ed?

Well we don’t know what we’re dealing with. The anonymity creates power. It also creates ambiguity. I don’t know who this person is. I don’t know what their agenda is. You know, in my 44 years on this mortal coil I have yet to meet a person who reliably and only represents the truth and nothing but the truth and has no agenda of their own. Least of all somebody involved in politics.

Now he’s going to centralize control even more, which will undermine the very purpose of the project of the person who wrote this op-ed in the first place.

On top of that, if you were the writer of this op-ed, if you were participating in this quiet resistance from the inside and you style yourself as one of “grownups in the room” and you think that this president’s administration is 40 percent done, why would you announce your movement right now?

If you were trying to resist and stymie and misdirect and clip the wings of this president through administrative channels, you’ve got two and a half more years of doing it. So why would you announce your movement right now? It’s not clear to me how a person representing these values could advance those values by writing this op-ed right now.

They’re basically telling the president and whatever inner circle of allies he does have: “Hey guys, this is what we’re doing. We’re now making this common knowledge for the whole country.” It certainly puts Trump on notice if he wasn’t already aware.

Do we think the president is just going to read this and be like, “Well there is that. Okay. What can I possibly do about it? I guess that’s just the way things are.” Of course not! He’s going to try to counteract this movement. He has to do something about it. Now he’s going to centralize control even more, which will undermine the very purpose of the project of the person who wrote this op-ed in the first place.

We talked earlier about how bureaucrats or administrators having their own agendas and doing their best to execute those agendas is nothing new, even if it has never been as widespread as this op-ed claims. What about the idea of going public in this way, just a few weeks before a major election? Has that happened before?

That’s pretty different. Usually the nature of this kind of power is behind the scenes. If you want to wield this power effectively — and it can certainly be done — you want to keep it quiet. You don’t want to shine a spotlight on the fact that you are undermining the man who is supposedly the titular boss.

If the story this op-ed writer is presenting is true and there is in fact this generalized resistance, is that something we as people interested in democracy should be concerned about? Trump was pretty clear about what he wanted to do if he was elected, and they’re preventing him from doing that. Or are they preserving the American institutions we hold dear?

The funny irony of this situation is that both of those things can be true in this particular situation at the same time.

You can say that you so strongly disagree with what this president is doing that the actions of senior appointed officials or career officials — we don’t know who it is — to stymie the president’s agenda is ok or good. If you disagree strongly enough with the president’s policies, you can say they’re inoculating America.

That might be comforting in this case, but the inescapable conclusion is that the president, despite being charged in Article II of the Constitution with the executive powers of our government, you have to conclude that he really doesn’t have control of the executive branch.

So how do we hold the president accountable? It makes you wonder, what can he answer for? And more importantly who should answer?

Reporters interested in talking with Sean Gailmard can email Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu