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White House officials are terrified of what Trump would do on his own

Why they’re not quitting: “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill."

President Trump Signs Executive Orders On Oil Pipelines Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

At this point, with so many of President Donald Trump’s once-key advisers leaving the White House, and the president himself showing very little interest in learning on the job, the question isn’t why White House officials are leaving, but why they’re staying.

Professional politics gossipmonger Mike Allen asked a bunch of anonymous White House officials that question for Axios. The answers are pretty standard, for the most part: Trump isn’t quite as bad as the press makes him out to be; the good people in the administration (Secretary of Defense James Mattis gets a shoutout) need support; if they resign, less principled people will take their place.

But the first reason listed is literally that White House officials are sticking around because they need to protect America from Trump’s policy whims.

"You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill": The most common response centers on the urgent importance of having smart, sane people around Trump to fight his worst impulses. If they weren't there, they say, we would have a trade war with China, massive deportations, and a government shutdown to force construction of a Southern wall.

This is a very weird admission for people serving in the top levels of a presidential administration to make. It’s almost like they’re saying that the things the president of the United States wants to do would be bad for America, and that, as horrifying as the things that the president says and does in public might sometimes be, they’re nowhere near as horrifying as the things he might say or do if he wasn’t closely watched by his minders. It’s almost like their reason for continuing to support the presidency of Donald Trump is that Donald Trump is a horrifically dangerous and unqualified president.

If they actually believe that, they absolutely need to resign. Because they don’t actually have nearly as much power to stop Donald Trump from carrying out his agenda as they think.

For one thing, the “crazy stuff” they mention isn’t all stuff that Trump has failed to do. There is very little Trump could have done that would have resulted in “massive deportations” six months into his presidency; in fact, he has stepped up immigration arrests, but the backlog in the immigration court system means that it can take years between an arrest and a deportation.

If senior White House officials are somehow stopping the Trump administration from trying to fix the immigration court backlog because they don’t want bad headlines about mass deportations that would be a very short-sighted policy decision — but it’s extremely unlikely that is what’s happening. It’s more likely that the White House officials in question are looking at the fact that Trump has deported fewer immigrants from February through July of 2017 than were deported during the same months of 2016, and falsely giving themselves credit for preventing something that never would have happened.

More broadly, though, if Trump really did want to start a trade war with China (for example), there would be nothing that any adviser could do to prevent it. Trump seems to actively like going against the advice of his staffers, either because he’s playing them against each other or just to reinforce that he’s the decider. One of the rules of the Trump White House appears to be that telling the president he can’t do something is the surest way to make him want to do it.

When he is forced to do something he doesn’t want to do, like his Monday statement that explicitly denounced white supremacists after the violence at a Charlottesville rally, he is liable to react by going back and doing what he wanted to do all along, even at the risk of contradicting himself (as he did on Tuesday, when he called some of the marchers “very fine people”).

And once Trump has decided he wants to do something, he can just do it. He announced that he was banning trans service members from the military on Twitter without telling any of the relevant policymakers, while Secretary Mattis was on vacation. No one was able to prevent that from happening.

If there are things that Trump has been successfully dissuaded from doing, it’s not because his advisers are watching him like a hawk. It’s because he has decided, at least for the moment, he doesn’t really want to do them. If Trump really did want to do “crazy stuff,” the advisers who talked to Mike Allen probably wouldn’t find out about it before the rest of Trump’s Twitter followers did.