The problem for the decent senior officials is this: Even if they stay in for these best of motives, thinking and acting like the patriots they undoubtedly are, they will suffer not merely reputational loss, but a kind of psychic hazard that is hard for the rest of us to imagine. If John Kelly were in a post-military business career, he would not have endured a chairman of the board he was serving on speaking the way Trump did at that press conference. Kelly would have walked off stage and resigned within the hour. Instead, he had to stand there, impassively pained. Gary Cohn is a Jewish philanthropist: He paid a price, not in emotional discomfort but in his integrity, in staying silent while the president made excuses for anti-Semites shouting slogans that hark back to Hitler’s brown shirts.
One’s country can ask those who volunteer to serve it in uniform to put their lives on the line. In extremis, it can demand it of any citizen conscripted into its service. But the hazards of battle do not require surrendering your soul: just the reverse, risking it all can mean reaffirming your highest values. The country does not, however, have the right to ask you to sacrifice your moral core, what makes you who you are. It has no right to ask a Mattis, a Kelly, or a McMaster, to turn into a silent partner in odious speech or reprehensible deeds, to acquiesce in a contemptible code alien to their nature and education.