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The many examples of Trump officials resisting the President

Posted at 2:59 PM, Sep 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-06 17:25:40-04

The “resistance” that a senior administration official described in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday has been alive and well since the early days of President Donald Trump’s term in office.

Dozens of officials in Trump’s administration, including Cabinet members, West Wing officials and other senior officials across federal agencies, have repeatedly stepped in to keep Trump’s most impulsive and reckless decisions (in their words) from ever seeing the light of day.

Those efforts are now in the spotlight after they were highlighted in a deeply sourced new book by Bob Woodward and after an unnamed senior administration official took the highly unusual step of publishing a column describing those efforts, decrying Trump’s conduct and assuring Americans there are government officials working to mitigate Trump’s actions that “are detrimental to the health of our republic.”

“To be clear, ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous,” the unnamed senior administration official wrote. “But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic. That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

It is impossible to quantify the efforts of that quiet resistance. When asked to share examples of efforts to frustrate Trump’s more rash decisions, one former senior administration official told CNN: “That’s a daily occurrence. Literally multiple times a day.”

But there are several illustrative examples, listed here:

Evacuating of military families from South Korea

Just weeks before the Winter Olympics in South Korea that served as a critical diplomatic opening with Pyongyang, Trump ordered his top national security officials to prepare to evacuate the families of all US military personnel living in South Korea, four current and former administration officials told CNN.

The order was a provocative step that would have heightened tensions with North Korea and could have sent the region spiraling closer to war because North Korea could have interpreted the move as the US preparing to strike North Korea.

Then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster directed National Security Council staff to prepare a presidential memorandum ordering the evacuation.

But behind the scenes, Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly worked to kill the order, convincing Trump to agree to a scaled-down directive. But that too was never implemented.

Firing Mueller

Trump ordered the White House counsel Don McGahn in June 2017 to direct the firing of the special counsel Robert Mueller.

McGahn refused to carry out the order, though, threatening to resign instead. Trump ultimately dropped the issue, a source told CNN in January, confirming reporting from The New York Times.

Trump denied that he had moved to fire Mueller.

Pulling out of the US-South Korea free trade deal

A letter announcing the United States’ intent to pull out of KORUS, the free trade deal between the US and South Korea, was on Trump’s desk in September 2017, ready for his signature.

But, according to Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” the President’s then-top economic adviser Gary Cohn stepped in and swiped the letter from Trump’s desk — and Trump’s desire to withdraw from the trade deal ultimately subsided.

The trade deal was ultimately renegotiated and Trump has touted the renegotiated agreement as one of his top accomplishments in office.

Withdrawing from NAFTA

Later that year, Trump decided he also wanted to simply withdraw from NAFTA, directing his then-staff secretary Rob Porter to draft a letter notifying his intention to pull the US out of the trade pact between the US, Canada and Mexico, according to Woodward’s book.

Porter drafted the letter, but consulted Cohn and other officials about how to stop Trump from taking a step they feared would rattle the global economy and the US relationship with its two neighboring countries.

“I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk,” Cohn told Porter, according to Woodward’s book.

The US has now reached a preliminary agreement with Mexico on renegotiating NAFTA and is in the midst of negotiations with Canada.

Imposing steel and aluminum tariffs

On this one, Trump ultimately prevailed — imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, albeit ultimately carving out a few exceptions.

But for months, Trump’s globalist-minded economic advisers including Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin thwarted Trump’s repeated direction to draw up tariff actions he could take, including on steel and aluminum imports.

Trump ultimately announced he was moving forward with those tariffs in March, but in the summer of 2017, Cohn and Mnuchin convinced Trump imposing the tariffs could threaten support for the tax reform effort they were leading on Capitol Hill.

And when the tax reform legislation passed, they pivoted their arguments: telling Trump the tariffs would undermine the record-high stock market figures Trump so frequently touted, three sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.

Expelling Russian diplomats

It’s not always about the actions officials have prevented Trump from taking. As the unnamed official wrote in The New York Times, some officials have also sought to push through actions that may be at odds with Trump’s public positions.

“The result is a two-track presidency,” the official wrote in the Times.

Trump’s aides convinced him in March to sign off on the expulsion of 60 suspected Russian spies working in the US on diplomatic cover, in response to the suspected Russian nerve agent poisoning of a double agent on British soil.

Trump signed off because he believed he was matching the number of Russian officials individual US allies were expelling.

But when he found out other countries had ousted roughly as many Russian officials as the sum total of other US allies, he was enraged, The Washington Post reported at the time. A senior administration official also confirmed Trump’s anger about the move to CNN.

2018 NATO summit

Similarly, senior US officials rushed to complete a joint communique to be issued during the NATO summit this summer before Trump arrived in Brussels for the annual meeting, The New York Times reported.

John Bolton, the recently installed national security adviser, pushed to seal the communique ahead of the summit, securing key commitments from the US about the military alliance before Trump could threaten to upend those very pledges, according to the Times.

Arriving at NATO, Trump would nonetheless vaguely threaten the US departure from NATO unless NATO allies committed to additional spending and called an emergency session to discuss the issue of burden-sharing on the final day of the summit. But the communique had already published a day earlier, committing the US to the alliance and its future growth.

Assad’s assassination

Woodward reported in his new book that Trump called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis after Syrian chemical weapons attacks in April 2017 and said: “Let’s f***ing kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f***ing lot of them.”

After hanging up, Mattis told an aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”

Ultimately, the US would launch military strikes against several Syrian government targets but would take no action on assassinating Assad — which would have marked a major escalation of the US response.

Mattis denied making contemptuous remarks that were also attributed to him in Woodward’s book, but he did not specifically deny the anecdote about Assad.

Trump denied ever ordering or considering ordering the assassination of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad when he was pressed Wednesday about the allegation, which is included in Woodward’s book.

“I heard somewhere where they said the assassination of President Assad by the United States. Never even discussed,” Trump said.