President faces unprecedented opposition from his own former aides

History offers plenty of examples of presidents who've clashed with one aide or another, but we've never seen anything like this.
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Storm clouds gather above the White House on April 9, 2020.Oliver Contreras / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton didn't just write a book about his tenure in the White House, he's also offering candid assessments of the president whom he served alongside for a year and a half.

President Donald Trump is not "fit for office" and doesn't have "the competence to carry out the job," his former national security adviser John Bolton told ABC News in an exclusive interview. In an explosive new book about his 17 months at the White House, Bolton characterizes Trump as "stunningly uninformed," ignorant of basic facts and easily manipulated by foreign adversaries.

I can appreciate the fact that the escalating conflict between Donald Trump and John Bolton, which has brewed for months, may make for compelling political drama, but let's not miss the forest for the trees: the former White House national security advisor spent a year and a half in the West Wing. During that time, he came to the conclusion that the president he served is so incapable of doing the job that he's alerting the public to the fact that the leader of the free world is not "fit for office."

Putting aside any other consideration, there is no modern precedent for anything like this. It's not about comfort with Bolton's policy vision -- I have no use for his far-right hawkish views -- it's about the unprecedented political dynamic unfolding in an election year: former White House officials who are warning the public about what they learned about Donald Trump while working closely with him.

If it were just Bolton, the president's allies might find it easier to argue that their division was the result of an inter-personal conflict, which would necessarily make it less significant. But therein lies the rub: Bolton is part of a growing club.

Just two weeks ago, for example, former Defense Secretary James Mattis, wrote a rather extraordinary rebuke of Trump, condemning the president for being divisive, immature, and cavalier about abusing his powers. Soon after, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, another veteran of Team Trump, publicly endorsed Mattis' criticisms.

Kelly added, "I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?"

Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former Republican senator who also worked closely with Trump, was recently asked whether he supports the president's re-election. Coats didn't want to say.

Let's also not forget that it wasn't long ago when former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared some uncomplimentary thoughts about Trump. According to the nation's former chief diplomat, the president is "pretty undisciplined," "doesn't like to read," and "often" urged Tillerson to pursue policies that were inconsistent with American laws.

Under normal circumstances, a president should expect criticisms from a rival party's members. A White House incumbent should similarly expect unflattering critiques from various pundits and commentators.

But as we recently discussed, Republicans like Bolton and Mattis are in a qualitatively different category. These are officials who worked side by side with the president. They had a front-row seat, watching how Trump tried to lead, how he processed information, how he evaluated evidence, and how he made decisions.

And now that they've left the administration and had an opportunity to reflect on their time on Team Trump, these same Republicans want Americans to know just how unimpressed they were with the president.

History offers plenty of examples of presidents who've clashed with one aide or another, but we've never seen anything like this.

I don't seriously expect the president's die-hard followers to listen to Trump's more progressive detractors, but when leading members of Trump's own team signal their concerns about his capabilities, it should give everyone pause.