/Opinion | Those who worked with Trump must now tell Congress what they know

Opinion | Those who worked with Trump must now tell Congress what they know

At the White House on May 18, 2017, from left to right: national security adviser H.R. McMaster, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Pence. Of the group, only Pence is still a member of President Trump’s administration. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

David Kramer is a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Center for Human Rights and Diplomacy and director of European and Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

As part of the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump, Congress should now do something it should have done before: seek the testimony, under subpoena if necessary, of top former Trump administration officials.

For too long, those who served this administration at the highest levels of government have shirked their responsibility to let the American people know whether they harbored concerns about the president’s fitness for office or his willingness to substitute his own personal interests for U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was fired in humiliating fashion via tweet, has dropped hints in various settings — including noting that Trump had suggested actions that would be illegal. Yet Tillerson hems and haws about going into further detail. Former defense secretary Jim Mattis just published a book but he, too, resists answering questions about his time in the current administration or any observations about the potential risks this president poses to U.S. national security interests, beyond those hinted at in his resignation letter.

These public servants, one a former business executive and the other a distinguished military officer, accepted and performed — with approval by Congress — political appointments as Cabinet members. Their silence is no longer tenable.

In addition to Tillerson and Mattis, those who should testify include Daniel Coats, the former director of national intelligence; H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser; Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; John F. Kelly, former White House chief of staff and former secretary of homeland security; Kirsten Nielsen, former secretary of homeland security; and the latest to depart, John Bolton, who served as national security adviser.

Given the revelations in the Mueller report and those more recently unearthed in the whistleblower matter, they have an obligation to come forward and testify as to whether they have seen the president engage in abuse of power or corruption. They should have done this without being asked or compelled to testify. Their silence, quite possibly, has enabled such behavior.

There is no denying that Trump does things in an unconventional way. His tweets, his rants, his rallies, his appointments and dismissals — none of these are normal. The crucial questions are whether the president is stable, whether he has abused his power, and whether he has pursued his own personal and electoral interests instead of national interests. Though so many of the president’s excesses and lies are laid bare for the public to see, only a few people have been in a position to see and evaluate his actions behind closed doors.

Those who have either published or are working on books based on their experiences are capitalizing on their former positions. This makes their refusals to address questions about the current occupant in the White House even worse. They have a responsibility to the American people, given their close, firsthand interaction with Trump. They are in the best position to judge the president’s capacity to carry out his duties. They need to come forward and either confirm the worst suspicions or lay to rest the worst fears people have about the president.

None of them — with the possible exception of Bolton, who insists that he quit despite Trump’s claims to the contrary — has been willing to speak out about their experiences and dealings with the president. As top public officials and members of the Cabinet, they had a unique responsibility under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment for determining whether the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

That the 25th Amendment has not been invoked does not reassure those who think Trump is not up to the job. Congress should call on all of them to appear and testify. If they resist appearing, Congress should subpoena them. Voters have a right to know from those who have worked most closely with Trump whether he is fit to possess the nuclear codes and other precious secrets.

These are the questions to ask; they are simple and straightforward. And they are worded in a way that gets around executive privilege claims:

  • Did you ever have reason to think the president was unfit for his position?
  • Did you ever contemplate invoking Section 4 of the 25th Amendment? Did you have any sense whether other members of the Cabinet wondered the same?
  • Do you have any reason to believe the president is compromised?
  • Do you know of any examples where the president clearly placed personal and/or electoral interests ahead of national interests?

Answers to these questions, under oath, would enlighten the current impeachment inquiry. They would either allay concerns or heighten anxieties, but they would also provide Americans with a fuller, clearer picture of this president. As members of Congress face the most consequential votes of their lives, they should be deciding with all the information and insights available. Let the hearings begin.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump is betraying his oath of office. If Republicans don’t step up, they will be, too.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Don’t let impeachment conceal Trump’s serial derelictions of duty


Catherine Rampell: Trump found a way to simultaneously sabotage our health-care and immigration systems

Dana Milbank: Trump’s defense: You can’t impeach me. I impeach you.