President Donald Trump is seen with then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned after a crisis of conscience. (CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

No one tests the conscience in quite the way Donald J. Trump does. Justice Department lawyers, diplomats, and intelligence officials are among those he has most famously put to the test. But the provocateur-in-chief challenges a much broader swath: most anyone whose calling requires making fair judgments on Trump and his administration.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—whom, on February 25, Trump called on to recuse herself from all cases involving him—is a prime example. In an interview with the New York Times during the 2016 presidential campaign, Ginsburg said, “I can’t imagine what the country would be—with Donald Trump as our president.” It was a terrible thing for a Supreme Court justice to say, and she apologized.

Trump is still after her for it. But consider some context: this man running for president of the United States had built his campaign on appeals to loony conspiracy-mongers like Alex Jones of Infowars, who claimed on his show on the morning of 9/11, “Ninety-eight percent chance this was a government-orchestrated, controlled bombing.”

The historian Jill Lepore places this aspect of Trump in historical context in her book These Truths: A History of the United States. Lepore captures how alarming Trump’s rise is for a democracy that declares itself rooted in certain self-evident truths. Trump arrived in presidential politics with the aid of “truthers” and “birthers,” appearing on Jones’s radio show. Jones congratulated Trump on his phony claim that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attack. “Your reputation’s amazing,” Trump told Jones. “I will not let you down.”

There is a reason Ginsburg felt a need to speak out. And that top FBI officials decided they had to investigate the personal, political, and financial ties that Trump and members of his campaign team had to Russia at a time when its agents were manipulating a presidential election to Trump’s advantage. And that a “deep state” whistleblower exposed Trump’s attempts to push Ukraine into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden.

Time and again, Trump’s abnormal behavior forces the issue, which is, to paraphrase the Marx Brothers: Who are you going to believe, me or your own conscience?

Ultimately, Trump’s policies became more than her conscience allowed.

As Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen defended a Trump policy that required her to launch, fully unprepared, the large-scale separation of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. Ultimately, Trump’s policies became more than her conscience allowed. “What led me to resign is there were a lot of things that there were those in the administration who thought that we should do,” Nielsen said in an interview with PBS. “And just as I spoke truth to power from the very beginning, it became clear that saying no and refusing it to do it myself was not going to be enough. So it was time for me to offer my resignation, which is what I did.”

Donald McGahn was in a similar position when Trump told the White House counsel to have Robert Mueller fired as special counsel. Mueller relates in his report: “On June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”

Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, “paused a moment, appearing to have been overcome by emotion” when telling Mueller’s investigators about Trump’s manipulations. The White House had tried to pin the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on Rosenstein, a falsehood. The experience evidently left its mark on Rosenstein, who told Mueller’s investigators that he was “angry, ashamed, horrified, and embarrassed” at the way Comey was fired.

Diplomat Marie Yovanovitch and other government officials who defied Trump by testifying in the House impeachment inquiry were not about to end up that way. “We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act,” Yovanovitch wrote in the Washington Post. “It has been shocking to experience the storm of criticism, lies, and malicious conspiracies that have preceded and followed my public testimony, but I have no regrets. I did—we did—what our conscience called us to do.”

Trump mocks acts of conscience: “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” he declared at the National Prayer Breakfast the day after Senator Mitt Romney said his religiously informed conscience required him to vote to impeach the president.

Would that someone among the assembled clergy responded that, as James Madison wrote, “conscience is the most sacred property of all.”

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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