In 1991, the investment banking firm Salomon Brothers got into huge trouble, and was on the brink of collapse. Warren Buffett, who at the time was a passive investor in the company, was pressed into taking over as head of the company to clean it up.
Buffett's management takeover is famous to this day for a memorable line he shared -- one he intended to get a lot of attention, which it did. Buffett said, "Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless."
The reason this message resonates is that it sounds counterintuitive. If you lose money for a company, shouldn't the CEO be upset? Shouldn't that be the worst thing you can do?
Only if you're looking at the short term. Only if you care about nothing beyond midnight tonight. In the long term, a banking company that loses its reputation is destined to fail and it won't make any difference whether they made a profit in the short term or not. The reputation is the long-term engine of whether the company stays in business.
As Americans, we ought to turn the same message to our own Chief Executive Officer: Lose a battle, and we will be understanding. Lose a shred of the Constitution, and we will be ruthless.
It's easy to slip into uncritical agreement with the argument that "The President's first duty is to protect the American people." But it's false. So very, very false.
The Presidency is the only job for which the Founding Fathers not only wrote out a job description, but also the oath of office. And that oath of office states, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Be clear about this: The Constitution says that members of Congress, judges, and officers of the executive branch have to swear an oath. (In fact, it's from Article VI that we get the "no religious test" clause: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.")
But even though it specifies that those other government employees shall take an oath, it doesn't say what that oath should say. But by contrast, it is unequivocal about what the President must swear to do. And that job is not just "to support this Constitution", but to "preserve, protect, and defend" it.
So, no, the President's first duty is not to "keep the American people safe." And if you buy into that false claim because you like the fact that Donald Trump is the President, you need to face the hard fact that Barack Obama adopted exactly the same language in 2011. Obama was wrong to assert it. Trump is wrong to assert it. George W. Bush was wrong to assert it, too. Period.
Again, there is no room for equivocation on this. President Obama was wrong. President Trump is also wrong. So was every Presidential candidate who asserted the same thing. The fact it is asserted by so many politicians of so many ideologies is a symptom of a sort of Consititutional rot that we should be eager to repel.
The uncomfortable fact is that there will be terrorist attacks, just as there will be car accidents, airplane crashes, and industrial disasters. Should we seek to mitigate and prevent all of these unfortunate events? Yes. Within the bounds of the Constitution. But we have to keep our priorities straight: If we assert that the President's first job is not what it's actually supposed to be, then we run the grave risk that we'll not only end up unsafe (because -- don't fool yourself -- even a police state will still suffer from crime and terrorism), but also unfree.
Presidents are not equipped to make battleground decisions about keeping us safe. They, and we, must trust the apparatus established by the Constitution and law to protect the country. The CIA, FBI, NSA, DHS, Department of Defense, Secret Service, and a laundry list of other agencies all perform the job of public safety, and they operate with or without the President. That's the point, of course. It's not as though we were suddenly invaded when Ronald Reagan was incapacitated by a gunshot, or when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It's the job of the system to keep us safe, not the job of the individual in the Oval Office.
Give up one battle, one incident, one attack, and we as the American people shouldn't be happy about it -- but we should be understanding. We should insist on accountability, and we should insist that we discover where the bad actors got through so that we can implement a correction. But a President should not be permitted to give up one shred of the Constitution, not in the courts, and not in the court of public opinion. Should that happen, we -- the voters, the President's bosses -- must be ruthless.