Although America is far from perfect, our government has among the world’s strongest processes for officials to express internal policy dissent without fear of retribution. Our country also has a long tradition of such officials resigning when they strongly disagree with certain policies.
Instead of following either of these legitimate and well-established paths, however, a group of junior staffers in the Biden administration last week chose to hold a public vigil in front of the White House, protesting the administration’s approach to the Gaza war. Standing behind a sign reading “PRESIDENT BIDEN: YOUR STAFF DEMANDS A CEASEFIRE,” a spokesman read remarks demanding a “permanent cease-fire” and “an immediate de-escalation now.”
We respect the Constitutional right of these individuals and indeed all Americans to express their views. But these White House staffers do not have the right to both engage in active insubordination and remain employed by the U.S. government, particularly as members of the president’s staff.
Increasingly recognizing the dangers of ideological monocultures, the White House and U.S. government departments and agencies have, over the years, developed formal channels for internal dissent. These processes were strengthened significantly in the State Department in 1971, to accommodate very valid objections to the conduct of the Vietnam war. The expectation of these established procedures is that once views have been aired and considered, employees are expected to support whatever the president decides. If they cannot do so, their other option is to resign.
America has a long history of government officials doing exactly that. In 1793, Thomas Jefferson resigned as secretary of state due to differences with President George Washington. In 1915, William Jennings Bryan stepped down from the same position because he felt President Woodrow Wilson was too aggressive toward Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania.
More recently, numerous National Security Council and other Trump administration officials resigned in protest following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capital. Two months ago, Josh Paul, a State Department official, resigned in opposition to the Biden administration’s Gaza policies.
Resignations like these are honorable expressions of dissent by individuals who feel they can no longer in good faith support their government’s policies.
Policy differences are an essential element of decision-making in free societies, but there is a radical difference between expressing them internally or resigning on the one hand, and White House staff actively seeking to subvert government policies on the other. The former can be expressions of idealism and patriotism. The latter threatens the functioning of our government and America’s national security.
The recent protest cannot be dismissed as youthful indiscretion because presidential staffers do not have the right to impose their views on their elected boss. No Americans voted for them. Many of those employees, especially those on the National Security Council, have a particular obligation to the president whom they serve.
This does not require North Korea-style blind fealty, but our government would stop functioning if all White House staffers felt empowered to advance their own political agenda, regardless of the official decision-making processes. It is hard to imagine that White House staffers so publicly engaged in insubordination could be counted on to help implement policies with which they so vehemently and publicly disagree, or that they can be fully trusted with access to classified materials, which they might mishandle to further their cause.
Serving in the White House is not an entitlement. It is a privilege that comes with responsibilities — including putting the decisions of the individual elected by the American people over one’s personal opinions. Regardless of political party, this must be true, or else our government will be fatally undermined by the whims of individuals who possess no electoral mandate.
White House staff serve at the pleasure of the president. Those who participated in this public protest have forfeited that privilege. If there are no consequences, they will be further emboldened to pursue their own agenda over that of the president.
These young people have every right to express views radically at odds with those of the commander-in-chief. But to do so publicly while remaining employed by the White House poses an unacceptable risk to America’s government process and national security. For the sake of our critical institutions and the presidency, the offenders must be identified and fired immediately.
Victoria Coates, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, served on the National Security Council staff under President Donald Trump. Jamie Metzl, founder and chair of OneShared.World, served on the National Security Council staff under President Bill Clinton.
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