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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Washington's guide to saving face

Then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the

Then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at the Phoenix International Academy in Phoenix on Oct. 15, 2020. DeVos resigned from Trump's cabinet after the Capitol riots earlier this week. Credit: AP/Matt York

In one of the darkest weeks in our nation’s history, a tiny spark of hope was lit as resignation letters mounted from members of President Donald Trump’s administration.

What a heartwarming scene it was to see these men and women of conscience standing up for our nation’s principles. What an affirmation it was to witness them turning on the man who had trashed those cherished precepts. What profiles in courage they are, repulsed by the despicable assault on the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s role as inciter-in-chief.

What a con.

This was no teaching moment on how to display valor in the face of stress. It was a lesson on how to jump ship before the rest of the crew as the vessel sinks to the ocean floor. It was a guide to saving face, and a primer in the fine art of laundering one’s reputation.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the first Cabinet member to hope the slime wouldn’t hit her on her way out the door, offered only a timeline in her letter to Trump, noting she was leaving "after yesterday’s events at the U.S. Capitol" — and only after spending two pages extolling her supposed accomplishments. In a second letter to colleagues, she said she was "deeply troubled" by the "traumatic and entirely avoidable" violence. But she never mustered a word about Trump.

Next up was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who did flash some backbone in her letter to Trump, writing, "There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me." Then she noted that "impressionable children" are watching and that leaders should "model the behavior we hope they would emulate."

None of Trump’s many prior insults, attacks and grotesque depredations caused her to worry about the impressionable children?

Of course, anyone with a modicum of decency would condemn the Capitol attack. If you want to say they were in a tough spot — damned by Trump-world if they criticized the president, damned by everyone else if they didn’t — well, they earned that spot because they’ve been there before and stayed silent, their cynical acquiescence eroding their souls.

Their original sin was the toadyism to which they fixed their wagons. And they kept their mouths shut with every display of egregiousness, until now.

Some toadies took a different approach, trying to distance themselves from the president, an impossible task. Like Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, who as 2016 primary rivals called Trump a "pathological liar" and "utterly amoral" (Cruz) and "offensive" and a "xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot" (Graham). Once Trump was elected, they became fierce allies. And after the Capitol carnage was over, they started running for cover. Cruz had the gall to say he had often criticized Trump over the last four years, a contention as baseless as his one about election fraud.

One can’t help but wonder what Trump’s men and women would have done if the Capitol attack came early in his term, rather than 14 days before his exit. Did the timing make it easier to pretend to be honorable?

Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin told "Morning Joe" the two-week-early notices were "a paid vacation on the taxpayer dime after many, many years of enabling this man." Sounds about right.

More departures are bound to come, even as the expiration date draws near. It’s hard to say whether the righteous resigners will recover their good names, such as they were. In America, some do and some don’t.

But it seems certain that history will remember them, not for what they did at the end, but for what they didn’t do along the way.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.