In Defense of NYT’s Anonymous: Government “Stewardship” as a Guard Against Threats to Democratic Order

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

– The Federalist 51

Revelations in both Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book Fear and the op-ed by an anonymous “senior administration official” published by the New York Times lend credence to President Donald Trump’s repeated concerns.  The president has many times referred to a “deep state” within his government that is failing to faithfully discharge its responsibilities to implement his policy pronouncements and that is instead throwing up roadblocks and otherwise thwarting his vision of progress under his Administration. President Trump isn’t wrong to demand that employees within the Executive Branch work diligently to execute his policy prerogatives. Generally speaking, that is. In extreme cases, where threats from within the government imperil the system itself, civil servants may be called by a higher duty to act as “stewards” of our democracy, ensuring its continued survival.

In our system, the American public votes for the President, who our system then provides significant powers to advance American policy as he or she sees fit. Subject to the rule of law and political checks imposed by Congress, American foreign and domestic policy can and should in large part reflect the incumbent President’s policy vision. Elections have consequences. If you don’t like it – as President Barack Obama has repeatedly pressed – get out and vote. The same goes for civil servants. While these individuals certainly can impact the operation of government from within, they were not elected by the public and presumptively must exercise their responsibilities in government according to the policy judgments of the current elected leadership. They, like all Americans, however, remain free to voice their disagreement at the ballot box.

But opponents of President Trump’s policies have urged civil servants to dampen President Trump’s ability to implement his policy choices. And with the revelations by Woodward, anonymous, and others, it seems that civil servants are doing just that. No doubt President Trump has sought and will continue to advance significant shifts in American policy. After all, he campaigned as a Swamp-draining Establishment-busting candidate promising to undo much of the last several Presidents’ policy choices. His targets for policy disruption included fiscal, tax, immigration, and health care policy, and broader conceptions of America, its international priorities, and its role in the world. Some may view internal resistance as a necessary, moderating hand in turbulent times, preventing the directed undoing of long-held policy positions of our government.  But interference with political choices is misguided and violates the duty of these officeholders to the American public. The bedrock principle of American democracy is the right to self-determination — through the free choices that the public makes at the ballot box, to select its political leaders. Once elected into office, our representatives have a broad policy space within which to operate. Placing roadblocks from within government to thwart policy choices of the elected leadership tramples on the very decisions the American public makes when it votes, and such misbehavior is in that sense anti-democratic. In short, these public servants violate their duty to the American public.

But there is a giant exception to the general rule of rote compliance by the federal bureaucracy to the policy choices of the political leadership. That exception grows out of these agents’ responsibility as stewards of their offices. The concept of stewardship by civil servants has traditionally referred to an officeholder’s responsibility to take action that advances the public rather than personal interests.

But good stewards not only faithfully do what they are told, they also protect the institutions themselves. They are bestowed with a power and duty to “take care” of something; in other words, to prevent it from breaking down or failing entirely. Under that conception of stewardship, in the most extreme cases, these individuals can and must also refuse to advance attempts to sabotage the very ability of our system to function. Civil servants should think of their responsibility of stewardship as akin to guardians of our system.  They should give the political leadership the space to make policy choices – even drastic ones with which many in the bureaucracy may fundamentally disagree. That’s the natural and proper outcome of elections.  But these guardians of our system should remain vigilant against efforts to change the very foundations of our democracy – changes, particularly when made outside of public view, that undermine the ability of the democratic process to function. In the face of such moments, it is their task to hold their ground, throw roadblocks, or take any other lawful action to interfere with the implementation of such anti-democratic changes.

Civil servants should be mindful, however, that changes that undermine the system itself often times masquerade as policy choices. They may, for example, appear as efforts to fully assert Executive Branch prerogatives, but may in practice limit the power of the courts to act as a necessary legal check on government. They may appear consistent with the long-recognized practice of protecting classified information from public disclosure, but in practice could drastically expand the universe of information that should never be unavailable to the public and shielded from public accountability. They may surface as efforts to crack down on “fake news” and in so doing involve an underhanded attack on the viability of the fourth estate. They may appear as efforts to crack down on leakers, but in the process mask efforts to dry up legitimate sources from within government that serve as the lifeblood of investigative reporting on the activities and abuses of government. Moreover, these changes may be cumulative in nature and come in the form of a nefarious yet gradual degradation of the pillars of a functioning democracy, such as unassailable commitments to the rule of law, political party affiliations free from reprisal or intimidation, an independent judiciary, free speech and press, and self-determination, and the methods may involve violations of norms, relentless attacks, or failures to faithfully discharge executive duties.

Of course given the thousands of functions assigned to millions of civil servants throughout our government, it is not possible to identify with great precision two different arenas for action: (a) tasks, orders, or instructions that a civil servant must faithfully execute to advance broad government programs as functionaries of the democratically elected leadership and (b) tasks, orders, or instructions that a civil servant is obligated to actively thwart by virtue of a higher duty to preserve the democratic institutions themselves. One variable to help decide on a proper pathway of action is Congress. If that body is unwilling to perform its functions as a reliable check on the Executive Branch, the choices become easier.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of career civil servants and in the vast majority of cases, they likely will never face such dilemmas. Individuals who constitute the ranks of the bureaucracy often lack adequate visibility as to the full scale, operation, and rationale of a government policy to make an informed judgment as to whether that government action threatens the system itself. They simply, in the vast majority of circumstances, will lack adequate context.

For officials at higher rungs of government in senior positions within Executive Branch agencies or who work for the Office of the President itself, like many of Bob Woodward’s sources, the likelihood of encountering such a choice increases. Perhaps for the continued ability of our government to function on a day to day basis, these individuals should sharply err on the side of faithfully executing the policy choices of their boss, and advancing the official agenda.

Except, of course, when they shouldn’t. 

About the Author(s)

Daniel J. Rosenthal

Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland’s Honors College. He previously served as Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council and as Senior Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Justice Department.