It is no longer surprising when Trump and his inner circle are revealed to to have done something corrupt, self-dealing or even borderline treasonous. Their characters are well spoken for by now. Of more interest as a character study are those who throw their credibility onto the fire to defend this Administration, often knowing that they will be burned for it in short order.
The latest Republican to immolate his respectability is Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who is actively spinning away Jared Kushner’s attempt to use secret Russian back channels to Moscow away from the eyes of American intelligence. Kelly knows that Kushner’s attempt to use actual Russian intelligence equipment to talk to Moscow is wrong. He knows that there is no credible innocent explanation for it. He knows what whatever the reason is that Kushner wanted the secret communications channel will almost certainly be revealed in all its seedy turpitude eventually.
So why do it? Why not stay silent? Why not simply resign?
The same question could be asked of Sean Spicer, who consistently allows Trump to humiliate him before the entire world and yet masochistically persists in his own victimization. The highly respected H.R. McMaster did likewise recently. Kelly-Anne Conway herself is reported to have said she “needed a shower” after defending Trump one evening.
Why do they all do it? Few of these people supported Trump against his more conventional challengers in the Republican presidential primary. The judgment of history will not be kind to them. They could make more money in the private sector. Their loyalty to Trump will not be reciprocated by a President who is more than willing to trample subordinates who do his dirty work.
So why do it? When this sordid era is finally over and the recriminating tell-alls begin, this will be one of the greatest questions: how did all of these career professionals allow themselves to be corralled into fronting and covering for this Administration? Is it fear? A misguided sense of professional duty? The sort of mass groupthink that causes market panics?
Whatever it is, it’s also how dictators and strongmen normalize and solidify their positions in formerly open societies. Whatever impulse is driving the Kellys and Spicers of the world to stick by Trump rather than expose him, is the impulse that allows democracies to die.