Jeffrey Abramson is Professor of Law and Government at The University of Texas at Austin and teaches in the areas of constitutional law, civil liberties, the jury, and political theory.
Political resignations can be a matter of great conscience and statesmanship. Or they can be the too little, too late scurrying of rats off a sinking ship. The last few months of the Trump Administration resemble the end of the Nixon presidency in giving us some of both.
It is important to give credit where credit is due, when resignations serve a purpose and display moral fiber. But it is also crucial to develop a typology for judging resignations, so as not to let history be fooled by resignations that serve self rather than country.
In any such typology, the following factors need to be taken into consideration. First, timing matters. A resignation done early, in hopes of altering the course of events, counts for more than a resignation done after the fact. Second, being willing to pay a cost matters. A person who resigns a life-tenured position on the Supreme Court, as Justice Breyer is being asked to do, risks more, than a person who resigns with only weeks left in office, as Attorney General Barr recently did. Third, consequences matter. Even a conscientious resignation that turns power over to a less scrupulous successor, may be ethical and yet impolitic. Finally, motive matters. There should be some standing for, and standing up for principle, a declaration that “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Using this typology, we can locate some compelling differences between the Watergate era resignations, and the belated Trump loyalists resignations.
In October of 1973, as the Watergate Crisis unfolded, President Nixon initiated the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” when he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the scandal. Richardson resigned instead, as did Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus. In his resignation letter, Ruckelshaus wrote, “My conscience will not permit me to carry out your instruction to discharge Archibald Cox. My disagreement, with that action at this time, is too fundamental to permit me to act otherwise.” Nixon finally found a compliant Solicitor General, Robert Bork, to do the firing. Bork’s willingness to do a corrupt President’s bidding became part of the case against him when the Senate rejected his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987.
Less than 10 months after the Richardson and Ruckelshaus resignations, on August 7, 1974, Nixon was forced to resign as President. In his resignation letter, Nixon portrayed the act as done for the good of the country. But it is clear that Nixon resigned to save himself the humiliation of being removed by impeachment and conviction. When Gerald Ford as president then pardoned Nixon for all federal crimes his predecessor had committed, the resignation created the appearance of a quid pro quo deal. Ford’s pardon played a role in his defeat in the 1976 election.
The Nixon saga shows that, even a president as hell-bent against resignation as Nixon can be forced to leave by a Congress that makes clear the alternative is to go down in history as the first president removed by an impeachment conviction.
In the case of Trump, we’ve seen a similar mix of conscientious versus expedient resignations. In an attempt to discredit the Mueller findings that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, Attorney General Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John H. Durham to lead his investigation. His top aide was Nora Dannehy. When Barr pressured Durham to rush out a report in time to help Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Dannehy quietly resigned, despite years of working
with Durham. Dannehy did not publicly declare her reasons for resigning. But given the timing, her dignified silence spoke clearly. It also worked to prevent Barr from using Durham’s probe for political purposes.
By contrast to Dannehy, Barr hung on to Trump’s coattails as long as he could, resigning only after Trump lost re-election, in a transparent public relations stunt to save his own reputation. His resignation was a resume builder with big law firms or foundations. Even when resigning, instead of distancing himself from Trump, Barr used the occasion to praise Trump’s “historic” and “unprecedented achievements on behalf of the American people.” There was not a word of regret.
Trump loyalists did not start to resign en masse until the Jan 6 thugs made continued association with Trump no longer a good career move. With only days left in office , Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao suddenly found their consciences when it was cheap to do so.
It was better that they resigned rather than implicitly endorsing Trump’s last days in office, but only marginally better. DeVos did note that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was a breaking point for her. But this did not keep her from exiting while praising the president for letting her, as Education Secretary, conduct a five-year war on federal funding of public schools.
A number of other White House staff have now resigned. These include Mick Mulvaney, former acting White House Chief of Staff and special envoy to Northern Ireland; Stephanie Grisham, Chief of Staff to the First Lady; Matt Pottinger, deputy National Security Adviser; Sarah Matthews, deputy White House Press Secretary; Rickie Neceta, White House Social Security; and Tyler Goodspeed, acting chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers; and Chad Wolf, acting head of the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, U.S. Capitol Chief of Police has resigned.
As these resignations snowball, perhaps they will finally call an avalanche down on Trump and sweep him away by impeachment or resignation. If so, these last-minute resignations will have served a political purpose. But that does not turn them into acts of conscience. It is important to keep the historical record clear when it comes to who showed leadership by resigning and who simply followed and brought up the rear.