A man with no political experience unexpectedly runs for the highest office in the political world, the president of the United States. His limited knowledge on the complex demands of the presidency—the nuances of geopolitical strategy, the intertwined interests of trade and diplomacy, the delicate balance of global power, the heavy-yet-fragile history that comes fastened to the burden of leadership—makes him susceptible to wild and dangerous theories about governing. Additionally, his prior life was one of stardom and starlets, providing plenty of salacious fodder for tabloids. The libidinous lifestyle sold plenty of Page Six copies, but it, simultaneously, leaves him vulnerable to extortion.
On the campaign trail, our hypothetical candidate’s impulsive manner reveals not just a vapid understanding of presidential duty, but a personal aversion to it. Suddenly, the leaders of adversarial countries speak in soft but approving tones of this disruptive political outsider. Voters, not knowing any better, fall in love. The rollicking style takes on a life of its own; soon a man lauded by America’s enemies is quickly becoming a viable contender to occupy the Oval Office.
As someone charged with protecting the country, what do you do?
The story should sound familiar. If former FBI Director James Comey is to be believed, it was the very scenario he faced as Donald Trump pummeled through his Republican primary opponents like a tornado through a town of tiny clapboard houses. Trump, a hapless political neophyte, should have never made it as far as he did in a normal political environment. Righteous duty, therefore, demanded Comey adopt a jaundiced eye toward the improbable candidate.
Reporting in recent days suggests the FBI may have been too overzealous, or perhaps too gullible, in their initial investigation of the celebrity real-estate developer. Uncovered text messages between an FBI agent initially charged with probing Trump’s ties to the Russian government reveal not only a virulent dislike of the unorthodox presidential nominee, but, notably, heavy doubt about crimes committed.
The general consensus at this point is that Trump never enlisted Vladimir Putin or any of his many minions’ help to beat Hillary Clinton. Whatever tacit help he welcomed in the form of social media shenanigans was, at most, undignified–never criminal.
But what if things were different? What if Donald Trump, Jr., did, in fact, entreat Russian operatives to smear and slander Clinton? What if Trump coordinated with Putin via back channels and proxies to spread false, sensationalist stories about the Clinton family?
The FBI would be in the right investigating and charging those individuals guilty of illegally soliciting assistance from a foreign power. But what if American voters didn’t care? What if Trump enlisted Russian intervention and became president anyway? What if the entire apparatus of the federal government, including our undergirding the liberal international order, was compromised, dictated by the ruthless leader of a former enemy state?
How far, then, is law enforcement permitted to go in preventing such activity without trampling on the will of the people? At what point does it become justified to depose such a president?
Damon Linker grappled with this question in a recent column reflecting on last year. In recounting the ousting of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Linker regrets his “incendiary claims about how Flynn’s ouster resembled a deep state coup.” While Flynn’s forced resignation from the White House remains questionable, Linker asks, “what if these bureaucrats were privy to information that incriminated Flynn in serious crimes — crimes that could badly harm the United States and would be highly unlikely to surface in any other way?” Had Flynn been a real Russian stooge, then the investigation and subsequent termination cease to be “acts of blatant criminality” and quickly become “heroic and patriotic acts of defiance undertaken for the good of the country.”
The removal of a duly elected leader by unelected bureaucrats doesn’t hold with our democratic hearts. America is an orderly republic with a populist and egalitarian streak that chafes at the idea of a faceless suit leading away a president in handcuffs. But, in a country where all are equal under the law, sometimes such an action isn’t only justified, but necessary.
This is a concept scholar Gilbert Meilaende calls the “virtuous evildoer.” In a recent rumination in First Things, Meilaende explores immoral acts committed for the greater good. The “complexities of human character” make it tricky to render hard and fast judgements about right and wrong. It is a “fact,” Meilaende writes, “that evil may be done in strikingly virtuous and honorable ways.”
The assassination of Julius Caesar, Dante’s Ulysses leading his men to their deaths for the sake of human discovery, Robert E. Lee’s dedicated service to the Confederate Army, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even Judas’s betrayal of Christ– all can be considered morally complex acts that are not thoroughly evil. They served a purpose bigger than the short-term harm caused.
So it could have been with Comey’s first foray into searching for a link between the Trump campaign and Russia subversion. So it may still be with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Trump-Kremlin collusion.
The most prudent course of action is to let the entire thing play out, judging the facts as they emerge. Unfortunately, The flurry of news coming out of the Mueller probe is clouding our senses, corrupting our ability to think clearly of the situation.
Everyone, it seems, has their finger on the trigger, ready to defend or malign the President with each trickle of new information. The same left who pummeled the J. Edgar Hoover’s draconian mistreatment of Martin Luther King, Jr., now openly hopes for a presidential scalping. On the right, the defenders of law and order and of institutional integrity now question the entire efficaciousness of the intelligence bureaucracy.
If something stinks by the end of this, by all means, let it out. Every American deserves the untainted truth. Comey is not Brutus; Mueller is not Ulysses. They are simply men caught up in the fraught task of keeping a government honest as can be. That’s all we can ask of our public servants.