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Leaving An Administration


Let's turn now to the other major story that dominated the news this week - that New York Times op-ed published anonymously by a writer said to be a senior Trump administration official claiming to be part of a resistance group inside the White House working to stop the president from making bad decisions.

As you might imagine, this provoked a furious reaction from the president. He said he wants the Justice Department to investigate others. And this has included both people who support the president and people who oppose him - have called for the anonymous author to make himself or herself known and to resign or to openly air his or her grievances with the way Mr. Trump operates.

We thought it would be useful to hear from a former senior administration official who once found himself at odds with the policies of the president he was asked to serve, so we called Peter Edelman. He served in the Clinton administration at the Department of Health and Human Services but resigned over policy disagreements. A Washington Post article written at the time, 22 years ago, explains that the resignation was notable because it, quote, "represented open discontent with a president among his own appointees." Peter Edelman is now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and he's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Professor Edelman, thanks so much for joining us.

PETER EDELMAN: Well, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: Before we get into the details of the current moment, I just wanted to ask you to refresh our memories about why you decided to resign. The specific issue was the welfare reform policy that President Clinton developed and ultimately signed. Why did you feel you had to resign?

EDELMAN: Well, first of all, I was one of those in the Department of Health and Human Services who had the responsibility within the department. So I wasn't just some part of the administration where I disagreed. This was head-on. It was a terrible and remains a terrible piece of legislation. By now, because of what they did to poor people, we have less than 3 million people, less than 1 percent, getting help on cash assistance.

MARTIN: So one of the reasons that your resignation was noteworthy - and I do want to point out here that two other officials also resigned in connection with that policy - is that you had been personally close to the Clintons, and so that's one of the reasons I think that your decision to resign stood out. Did you feel you had to resign because you couldn't oversee something you so profoundly disagreed with? Or, in part, was it you wanted to draw attention to the policy itself? Did you - you wanted to make a stink, as it were.

EDELMAN: Well. I don't know about stink, but (laughter) it's both. But largely that I could do something, and our two - my two colleagues, Mary Jo Bane and Wendell Primus, to say in a visible way to the country that a terrible mistake was being made. Whether that would make any change, I didn't know. And there were people there, particularly career people, who urged me because they could not, and they were going to have to stay there, and they were responsible people who would be involved in running that law afterwards, and they would do the best they could to make it as least bad.

MARTIN: So the question then becomes, did you ever consider doing what this writer did, which is to stay in the administration and fight from within? Did that ever occur to you?

EDELMAN: I did not. Nobody did. But I want to say very quickly, and then we'll get on to our conversation here, this is a crazy time. This is a time when all people there, one way or another, need to be on deck and try to stop him from doing awful things. So it's not the same.

MARTIN: So that's what's - that was obviously what I was going to ask you next, is what's your opinion of what the anonymous writer has done? As you've heard, there's been a furious reaction, not just from the president, but from a lot of people saying he should do what you did, which is to resign, be open about it and tell people why. What do you say?

EDELMAN: I'm either way in this situation. Yes, if a person - some people have quit, as you know - some people, for example, from the Justice Department who couldn't take it and said out loud that they disagree. There were a number of examples. Also, notice that they didn't get much attention. This one got America's attention, and that's really, really important.

MARTIN: It's interesting because you're going to be criticized no matter what you do. I mean, I'm sure you know that people criticized you for resigning. They said, oh, it was personal. Oh, it's because you didn't get something you wanted. Oh, you didn't get a judgeship. So you know that no matter what you do, you're criticized. Or people say that you shouldn't criticize someone openly whom you had chosen to serve. In this case, people are being criticized for the opposite - for not resigning.

Do you have some - I'm not - you're not necessarily in the advice-giving business - but do you have some thoughts for this person who says that they support the president in other ways? It's not so much the policies that he or she disagrees with - it's the way he conducts himself in that office. So...

EDELMAN: Well, I...

MARTIN: What would you tell him to do?

EDELMAN: I was thinking this morning, Michel, about Bob Woodward's book. And there's dozens and maybe hundreds of people that Woodward talked to semi-off the (laughter) - you know, but allowed themselves without their name. That's on the way to being completely not - anonymous in the op-ed. So it may be a larger idea that we're talking about. Well, nobody's saying that it's terrible that those people leaked except Trump doesn't like it.

So this is a very - we've never seen anything like this. But then we've never seen a presidency like this. And so I don't really have any advice or anything to that person except to say that my view is that, well, it's very strange. To me, it's acceptable under these circumstances.

MARTIN: That's Professor Peter Edelman. He's a professor at Georgetown Law Center. He's the author of many, many books. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Professor Edelman, thanks so much for joining us.

EDELMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "211") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.