A Moral Guide to Serving in the Trump Administration


Ever since the surprise election of Donald Trump, a debate has flared within the national security community about whether or not to serve in his administration. This is one of the most important dilemmas to challenge our profession in years, if not decades. The president-elect’s character, policies, and campaign rhetoric as well as the divisive views of his close advisors makes the decision to serve in a Trump administration agonizingly difficult for many dedicated and principled national security professionals — including a number of our friends.

Why is this debate hitting our community so hard? Unlike our counterparts who work on domestic policy, national security practitioners have long enjoyed a largely bipartisan consensus about the core principles of what makes America strong and secure: an open, liberal international order guaranteed by American leadership and power. Democrats and Republicans have fought long and hard about specific policies for decades, but those arguments have, for the most part, been about ways, not ends — how to best realize broadly shared principles, not whether they were the right principles in the first place.

Donald Trump was the first major party candidate in 70 years who did not share those principles. He campaigned against free trade, questioned the value of longstanding U.S. alliances, and praised Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Yet, Trump’s most vociferous opponents within his own party emerged not just in response to his rejection of long-standing American interests but from the threat he represented to fundamental American values — from his calls to ban all Muslims from entering the United States to seeing the Geneva Conventions as a “problem” to advocating waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Furthermore, many of the most respected national security veterans of both parties condemned candidate Trump’s prospective policies and called him unfit to be president. Republicans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates categorically rejected Trump’s fitness to be commander-in-chief, as did Democrat and former Secretary of Defense and CIA director Leon Panetta. And the open letters signed by most well-known members of the Republican national security establishment meant that much of the party’s experienced talent publicly rejected the candidate and many of his foreign policy positions. If the Trump transition team chooses to ostracize all of these past critics, the bench of qualified Republican foreign policy experts will become paralyzingly small.

As a result of these unprecedented clashes, many national security professionals are wrestling with the moral and ethical dimensions of serving in a Trump administration. Within hours of the election results, the debate was already underway about whether Republican national security experts who opposed Trump had an obligation to serve in his administration despite any misgivings. On November 9, Richard Kohn wrote that even Republicans who strongly opposed Trump “must serve” in his administration if given the opportunity. The next day, Eliot Cohen made a similar argument. Both counseled that there were ethical and moral limits to such service. Cohen suggested, for example, that all appointees keep an undated letter of resignation handy in a desk drawer — but that until those limits were crossed, Republican national security experts needed to serve the nation by contributing their expertise and offering their best possible advice. Brent Scowcroft concurred, arguing that country should come before party and that the new, inexperienced president would need sound guidance. Ross Douthat of The New York Times also acknowledged the difficult choice facing those who fear how Trump would govern but concluded that “precisely because they fear how Trump might govern, there is a moral responsibility to serve.”

Those views were countered, however, by those who believed that serving in a Trump administration would involve too much moral compromise. Eliot Cohen made headlines when, five short days after publishing the article mentioned above, he publicly recanted those views. After speaking with a member of the Trump transition team and seeing Republican leaders support Stephen Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s chief strategist, Cohen reversed course, arguing that serving in the early days of the new administration “would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation” because they “would probably make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible.” David Luban, a professor of law and philosophy, offered a powerful warning about the dangers of choosing the “lesser evil,” rejecting the notion that trying to change policies from the inside and limit their damage is somehow better than remaining on the outside.

This important debate has nevertheless been too limited and binary, focusing only on the choices facing prospective political appointees. That formulation is far too narrow for the very real moral and ethical questions facing all of those who serve, including those who are already in government. Career public servants in the executive branch and military personnel will automatically begin serving under President Trump on January 20. Like lots of other Americans, many of these public servants were deeply unsettled by Trump campaign rhetoric that advocated for more extreme means of torture against terrorists and other messages tinged with racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-Islamic themes. They must now determine whether their strong commitment to serving the nation crosses their own personal moral and ethical boundaries — and when their role might make them complicit with policies that they cannot support.

Some people will have no problems accepting positions in the Trump administration with nary a second thought. But there are many others out there who have deep concerns and are asking themselves questions that they may never have considered before any other newly arriving administration, regardless of party. These public servants must now pause to think about their personal moral and ethical boundaries — what administration decisions or policies would be so personally unacceptable that they would feel required to resign. It is impossible, of course, to know exactly what President-elect Trump will do once in office. It also remains unclear just how much he actually believes in much of the divisive and unsettling rhetoric he employed relentlessly during the campaign (and after the election as well, such as his baseless claim that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”). Nevertheless, Trump’s wide array of troubling comments mean that every responsible public servant should think about just what level of affront to their principles would simply be too much to tolerate — when choosing to serve or remaining on the job means becoming an enabler to policies or actions that they find deeply unethical or immoral. And this will not be a one-time choice. It will be an ongoing calculation throughout the entire administration, a decision that must be revisited repeatedly, week after week as new policies and decisions unfold.

There are no easy answers to these incredibly difficult questions, and we do not presume to tell others where those personal boundaries should lie. What we can do, however, is identify seven questions that public servants should consider as they search for their own individual answers.

  • Do you believe that your service will help improve policies and decision-making? No appointee or civil servant wins every argument all of the time, of course. But do you believe that you will help make things better on balance or at least prevent some truly bad decisions from happening? Will your presence lend an informed contrasting voice to what might otherwise might be an echo chamber of groupthink?
  • Do you believe that the policies or values that you find objectionable are rooted primarily in the new administration’s inexperience and lack of knowledge or in its core ideology? If you believe the former, then the case for serving is stronger, since you can help educate the new team. But if you believe that the administration is operating more from an ideology that fundamentally violates your deeply held beliefs (such as promoting torture or indiscriminate bombing), then the moral decision bends the other way.
  • Who specifically will you work for? Do you believe that person is guided by ideals and values that you respect? Will that person stand up to their bosses for the principles that you deeply believe in? Will they act as a bulwark of decency, shielding you and your colleagues — and maybe even the country — from the worst of politics going on above your pay grade?
  • Are the people you most respect choosing not to serve for a principled reason? Or, if later in the administration, have they resigned for cause? In each case, do you know what factors shaped their decisions? How does their logic align with or differ from your thinking? Understanding their experiences can serve as useful guideposts.
  • When would choosing to serve (or to remain in government) do more to advance the ideas and values you believe in most? Declining the opportunity to serve or leaving the civil service at the outset of an administration runs the risk of being seen as presumptive rather than principled, assuming the worst before the new administration arrives. Moreover, as Benjamin Wittes (who was early to this debate) writes, “resignations in response to illegal orders are far more powerful than preemptive resignations.” The same logic applies to moral and ethical principles as well.
  • When would choosing not to serve (or to leave government) do more to advance the ideals and values you believe in most? How will you carry your commitment to principle into action from the outside? If you elect not to serve now, what might change your mind? Who would you find sufficiently principled to work for that might convince you that serving is the right thing to do?
  • If you choose to serve (or to stay), how frequently do you plan to reassess your decision? Failing to do so runs the risk of the “boiling frog” syndrome, where every small uptick in the water temperature, or new policy that modestly erodes that which you deeply believe in, becomes slowly, inexorably acceptable until the whole is invisible and no longer objectionable.

In this challenging new world, we can all hope that those many members of the national security community who do serve will become a critical mass of moral and ethical influence in the early days of the Trump administration. In the best circumstances, their considered advice can offer principled options that better serve the nation and support our enduring values. At worst, their moral arguments will provide an uncomfortable rebuttal to those who might seek to undermine principles that have long represented America’s better angels to the rest of the world. That is a worthy goal for all of us who work to keep America safe, inside government or out.


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.


Image: Tina Hager, public domain