Dozens of officials in Trump’s administration, including Cabinet members, West Wing officials and other senior officials across federal agencies, have repeatedly stepped in to keep Trump’s most impulsive and reckless decisions (in their words) from ever seeing the light of day.
“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,” the unnamed senior administration official wrote. “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.”
It is impossible to quantify the efforts of that quiet resistance. When asked to share examples of efforts to frustrate Trump’s more rash decisions, one former senior administration official told CNN: “That’s a daily occurrence. Literally multiple times a day.”
But there are several illustrative examples, listed here:
Evacuating of military families from South Korea
The order was a provocative step that would have heightened tensions with North Korea and could have sent the region spiraling closer to war because North Korea could have interpreted the move as the US preparing to strike North Korea.
Then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster directed National Security Council staff to prepare a presidential memorandum ordering the evacuation.
But behind the scenes, Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly worked to kill the order, convincing Trump to agree to a scaled-down directive. But that too was never implemented.
Trump ordered the White House counsel Don McGahn in June 2017 to direct the firing of the special counsel Robert Mueller.
Pulling out of the US-South Korea free trade deal
A letter announcing the United States’ intent to pull out of KORUS, the free trade deal between the US and South Korea, was on Trump’s desk in September 2017, ready for his signature.
The trade deal was ultimately renegotiated and Trump has touted the renegotiated agreement as one of his top accomplishments in office.
Withdrawing from NAFTA
Later that year, Trump decided he also wanted to simply withdraw from NAFTA, directing his then-staff secretary Rob Porter to draft a letter notifying his intention to pull the US out of the trade pact between the US, Canada and Mexico, according to Woodward’s book.
Porter drafted the letter, but consulted Cohn and other officials about how to stop Trump from taking a step they feared would rattle the global economy and the US relationship with its two neighboring countries.
“I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk,” Cohn told Porter, according to Woodward’s book.
The US has now reached a preliminary agreement with Mexico on renegotiating NAFTA and is in the midst of negotiations with Canada.
Imposing steel and aluminum tariffs
On this one, Trump ultimately prevailed — imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, albeit ultimately carving out a few exceptions.
But for months, Trump’s globalist-minded economic advisers including Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin thwarted Trump’s repeated direction to draw up tariff actions he could take, including on steel and aluminum imports.
Trump ultimately announced he was moving forward with those tariffs in March, but in the summer of 2017, Cohn and Mnuchin convinced Trump imposing the tariffs could threaten support for the tax reform effort they were leading on Capitol Hill.
And when the tax reform legislation passed, they pivoted their arguments: telling Trump the tariffs would undermine the record-high stock market figures Trump so frequently touted, three sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.
Expelling Russian diplomats
It’s not always about the actions officials have prevented Trump from taking. As the unnamed official wrote in The New York Times, some officials have also sought to push through actions that may be at odds with Trump’s public positions.
“The result is a two-track presidency,” the official wrote in the Times.
Trump’s aides convinced him in March to sign off on the expulsion of 60 suspected Russian spies working in the US on diplomatic cover, in response to the suspected Russian nerve agent poisoning of a double agent on British soil.
Trump signed off because he believed he was matching the number of Russian officials individual US allies were expelling.
2018 NATO summit
John Bolton, the recently installed national security adviser, pushed to seal the communique ahead of the summit, securing key commitments from the US about the military alliance before Trump could threaten to upend those very pledges, according to the Times.
Arriving at NATO, Trump would nonetheless vaguely threaten the US departure from NATO unless NATO allies committed to additional spending and called an emergency session to discuss the issue of burden-sharing on the final day of the summit. But the communique had already published a day earlier, committing the US to the alliance and its future growth.
Woodward reported in his new book that Trump called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis after Syrian chemical weapons attacks in April 2017 and said: “Let’s f***ing kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f***ing lot of them.”
After hanging up, Mattis told an aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”
Ultimately, the US would launch military strikes against several Syrian government targets but would take no action on assassinating Assad — which would have marked a major escalation of the US response.
Mattis denied making contemptuous remarks that were also attributed to him in Woodward’s book, but he did not specifically deny the anecdote about Assad.
Trump denied ever ordering or considering ordering the assassination of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad when he was pressed Wednesday about the allegation, which is included in Woodward’s book.
“I heard somewhere where they said the assassination of President Assad by the United States. Never even discussed,” Trump said.