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Bravery or self-preservation? Resignations of Trump officials draw skepticism

                                Elaine Chao, the former transportation secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Elaine Chao, the former transportation secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON >> In a city where people can strive for decades to land a plum government job, resignations on principle do not happen often and, when they do, often reverberate as selfless acts of valor.

But as Trump administration officials from Cabinet members to junior White House aides quit this week — less than two weeks before their jobs would have ended anyway — over President Donald Trump’s incitement of a riot Wednesday at the Capitol, the reaction has combined applause for drawing a line on Trump’s behavior with caustic condemnation for what many see as self-serving, cost-free leaps toward public redemption.

“I don’t have any question that some of these are resignations of convenience, and resume resignations,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who worked for three previous Republican presidents but has long been a critic of Trump.

The test of how to judge such departures, he said, is complicated, and depends on how hard the exiting officials worked while on the inside to constrain presidential behavior they considered immoral or dangerous. But he said any claims by those officials that they were shocked by Wednesday’s events were dubious. “It was almost inevitable for the Trump presidency to end like this, or something like this,” he said.

The resignations include two Cabinet officials, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Several White House aides also stepped down, including Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser; Rickie Niceta, the social secretary; Stephanie Grisham, the chief of staff to the first lady and a former White House press secretary; and Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, who spent more than a year as Trump’s acting chief of staff.

Some, like Mulvaney and DeVos, who called the president’s language inciting the rioters “unconscionable,” were explicit about their disgust. Others, like Pottinger and Grisham, left quietly but for seemingly obvious reasons.

To Trump’s die-hard supporters, they may be traitors. But the departed Trump administration officials had stood by the president through countless other episodes that shocked consciences across the country: the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border, Trump’s equivocal words about white supremacist groups, and his many weeks dedicated to undermining the presidential election result with false claims about voter fraud and at least one vague threat to a state election official.

Mulvaney in particular was known as an enabler of the president who did little to constrain Trump’s impulses.

Even some people critical of officials who remained in Trump’s employ through such episodes said the resignations created political pressure that might act as a check on Trump now. The resignations may even have contributed to his belated condemnation Thursday of the violence at the Capitol, and his assurance of a peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 20, they said.

“John Rhodes and Hugh Scott hadn’t been profiles in courage in standing up to Nixon. Still, it mattered when they did,” said William Kristol, a conservative writer and activist who has been critical of Trump, referring to the two senior-most Republicans in Congress who played a crucial role in persuading President Richard Nixon to resign in August 1974.

Yet none of the departing Trump officials appear to be making the kind of self-sacrifice remembered in some famed resignations. Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state in 1980 in protest of President Jimmy Carter’s failed secret mission to rescue American hostages in Iran. Two senior Department of Health and Human Services officials quit in anger over President Bill Clinton’s decision to sign a sweeping 1996 welfare reform law. Trump’s first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, quit after Trump’s sudden decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria.

At least one Trump administration official appears to have invited his own firing this week: Gabriel Noronha, a State Department press aide, tweeted Wednesday that Trump was “entirely unfit to remain in office, and needs to go.” In what could not have been a surprise to him, Noronha was dismissed the following day.

Others have been publicly rumored to be considering their plans, including the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, who tweeted condemnations of Wednesday’s riot. O’Brien, who has spoken to friends about a future run for office, is said to be staying on for the sake of stability, but may have enjoyed reputational gain among Trump critics after a slew of news leaks cast him in a Hamlet-like role about his future.

In the cases of DeVos and Chao, some critics complained that by departing, they were forgoing an opportunity to do something far more consequential: join with other disgusted Cabinet officials in a potential effort to invoke the 25th Amendment and relieve Trump of his presidential duties.

“At this late a stage, resignations help little beyond serving as late attempts at self-preservation,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter. “If Sec. Chao objects to yesterday’s events this deeply, she should be working the Cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment — not abdicating the seat that allows her to do so.”

Alyssa Farah, who left as White House communications director weeks before the deadly mayhem in the Capitol, said it was clear then that Trump’s post-election behavior was intolerable.

“I made the decision to step down in December because I saw where this was heading,” she told Politico in an interview published Friday.

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