‘Anonymous’ is an American hero

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As the first (and, so far, last) “ethics czar” to advise a President and other senior officials on steering the moral helm of a new administration, my job included helping the White House navigate the question: What is the right thing to do? When the answer was obvious, my services were not needed. I was there for the gut-wrenching calls, when we were caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of law and ethics in foggy conditions.

The decision of an unnamed senior administration official (I’ll call this person “Anonymous”) to pen an op-ed in The New York Times publicly disclosing the views of some White House officials on President Donald Trump’s capabilities presents such a set of agonizing decisions.
Having wrestled with the dueling mandates of legality and morality, both in and out of government, I believe the author is doing the ethical thing in resisting Trump from within — and in writing about it openly.

The tension between following orders and following one’s conscience is one I have long studied. In my new book, “The Last Palace,” I write about four individuals who dwelled before me in the house I occupied as US ambassador in Prague — and who searched for the right thing to do as they found themselves at the pivot points of democracy over the past century.

They each grappled with the same choices as Anonymous at one point or another, from the Czechoslovak democracy advocate who built the place to the Wehrmacht officer who supplanted him; from the American ambassador who fought to prevent the Cold War to the one who helped end it four decades later.

Perhaps the most acute example was the German general who occupied the palace during World War II, Rudolf Toussaint. At the end of the war he discarded direct orders to destroy Prague when it was the site of a civilian revolt. “Das nest must brennen,” he was told: “The nest must burn.” Instead, he turned on the SS and saved the precious city and its people from annihilation.

I am certainly not comparing Trump to the Nazi regime (although in his own entry-level, illiberal way, he has adopted many of the themes of autocracy). But the example of the general illustrates a principle that surely even the critics of Anonymous must concede: When orders conflict with morality, sometimes the right thing to do is the right thing to do.

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