Many fans of the NBC television series, The West Wing, regard the eighteenth episode of the second season as one of the show’s best. Broadcast in April 2001, “17 People” features a dramatic confrontation in the Oval Office between three leading characters, President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen), his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), and his Communications Director, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), during which the latter challenges recent events in the White House administration:
Bartlet: Toby’s concerned that the peaceful solution I brokered in Kashmir last year was the result of a drug-induced haze.
Leo: I was there with him. So was Fitz. So was Cashman, Hutchinson, Berryhill…
Toby: Well, that’s fantastic.
Toby: None of you were elected!
Bartlet: I was elected, they were appointed. The Vice President was elected. He has the constitutional authority to assume my –
Toby: Not last May, he didn’t. Last May, when you were under general anesthesia.
Bartlet: That’s because I never signed the letter, but I don’t think I got shot because I got MS!
Toby: No, I don’t think you did either, sir. I meant that during a night of extreme chaos and fear when we didn’t yet know if we’d been the victims of domestic or foreign terrorism, or even an act of war, there was uncertainty as to who was giving the national security orders and it was because you never signed the letter. So I’m led to wonder, given your condition and it’s lack of predictability, why there isn’t simply a signed letter sitting in a file someplace. And the answer, of course, is that [chuckles] if there was a signed letter sitting in a file someplace, somebody would ask why. The Commander in Chief had just been attacked, he was under a general anesthetic, a fugitive was at large, the manhunt included every federal state and local law enforcement agency. The Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware National Guard units were federalized. The KH-10s showed Republican Guard movement in southern Iraq. And twelve hours earlier, an F-117 was shot down in the no-fly, and the Vice President’s authority was murky at best! The National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State didn’t know who they were taking their orders from. I wasn’t in the Situation Room that night, but I’ll bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that it was Leo. Who no one elected! For ninety minutes that night, there was a coup d’état in this country…
This scene often springs to mind when I read about the much-reported efforts of staff in Donald Trump’s chaotic White House administration to block the more debatable plans, ideas or whims of the populist president. From an anonymous opinion piece in the New York Times.
…the country is bitterly divided over Mr. Trump’s leadership. Or even that his party might well lose the House to an opposition hellbent on his downfall.
The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.
I would know. I am one of them.
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.
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.
Which leaves one wondering. How far can senior government officials in the United States of America go before good intentions, subverting or contradicting the orders of the president, crosses over into a form of coup d’état?