A letter of wishful thinking

Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon in August. CreditAlex Brandon/Associated Press

, The New York Times, 

And then there was one.

In March I wrote a column in the form of a memo to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

It began: “Dear Sirs, I am writing you today as the five adults with the most integrity in the Trump administration. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly, you all served our nation as generals in battle. Pompeo, you graduated first in your class at West Point. … Tillerson, you ran one of America’s largest companies. I am writing you directly because I believe you are the last ‘few good men’ who can stand up and reverse the moral rot that has infected the Trump administration from the top.”

Well, so much for that.

McMaster doesn’t seem to have built much of a relationship with Trump, not one that can constrain him. Tillerson blew himself up by reportedly calling the president a “(bleeping) moron” and then starring in a hostage video in which he sang the president’s praises and assured us that Trump was actually “smart.”

After Trump tweeted that Tillerson was wasting his time negotiating with North Korea, Tillerson had to publicly assure us that he had not been “castrated” by Trump — which meant that he had.

On Thursday Pompeo showed how much he has sold his soul. In an answer to a question, Pompeo told a conference held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank, that “the intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.”

That was a baldfaced lie. The C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A. issued a report in January concluding that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” designed to denigrate Hillary Clinton and aid Trump. At the same time these agencies declared, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” which was outside their writ and expertise.

Pompeo just made that up, no doubt to please Trump.

Finally, sadly, Kelly squandered his moral authority by starring in his own White House podium hostage video. He began well. Kelly spoke eloquently and with great dignity about the pain of losing a son in battle, as he and his wife did, and about certain bedrock values that our society has lost in how we treat one another. He even seemed to explain how the president’s phone call to the widow of a Green Beret killed in Niger got garbled.

If only he had stopped there. But instead he began to talk like Trump, gratuitously smearing a black congresswoman who was a friend of the Green Beret’s bereaved family — with provably false charges. It was tragic. In an instant he went from General Kelly to Kellyanne Conway, just another Trump apologist.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders must have known that Kelly had lost his moral authority, because, the next day, when reporters challenged Kelly’s comments about the congresswoman, the White House spokeswoman tried to shut them up by holding up Kelly’s formal uniform, saying, “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate.” Sorry, Sarah, when a general lies, he loses his moral and formal credibility.

That leaves Mattis as the last man standing — the only one who has not been infected by Trump’s metastasizing ethical cancer, the only one who has not visibly lied on Trump’s behalf, and who can still put some fear into Trump.

Well, Secretary Mattis, here’s some free advice to the last man standing: Don’t just stand there. If you just stand there, you’ll be next. Because Trump and Sanders will be looking to enlist your old uniform next in their defense — that is, if Trump doesn’t throw you under the bus first to escape responsibility for the bungled operation in Niger.

Secretary Mattis, we don’t need any more diagnosis of the problem. We need action. And I am not talking about a coup. I mean you need to lead McMaster, Tillerson and Kelly (Pompeo is a lost cause) in telling Trump that if he does not change his ways you will all quit, en masse.

Trump needs to know that it is now your way or the highway — not his. That is how you talk to a bully. It’s the only language he understands.

Tell him: No more ridiculous tweeting attacks on people every morning; no more telling senators who forge bipartisan compromises on immigration or health care that he’s with them one day and against them the next; no more casual lying; no more feeding the base white supremacist “red meat” — no more distracting us from the real work of forging compromises for the American people and no more eroding the American creed.

Led by you and you alone, Secretary Mattis, your little squadron with Tillerson, Kelly and McMaster still has power. And if you can’t together force Trump onto an agenda of national healing and progress, then you should together tell him that he can govern with his kids and Sanders — because you took an oath to defend the Constitution, not to wipe up Trump’s daily filth with the uniform three of you wore so honorably.

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