August 14, 2017

Former DHS secretary decries “downward spiral” of today’s politics; urges leadership from profession

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said all lawyers, indeed all Americans, should be outraged by what he called the “downward spiral” in the behavior of our political leaders. And he said lawyers must ensure that a similar downward spiral in standards is not happening in the profession.

Johnson, currently a partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, was secretary of Homeland Security from December2013 to January 2017 under President Barack Obama. He was the keynote speaker for ABA Section of Litigation’s Passing of the Gavel Luncheon on Aug. 11, during the 2017 ABA Annual Meeting in New York.

Johnson, who has spent most of his career in public life, joked that he has never been more recognized in private life than he has been since his June 17 televised testimony before Congress on the possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But he said what he is witnessing in the country today is no joking matter. He said he wanted to speak not as the former secretary of Homeland Security and not as a politician, but as a fellow member of the bar and a concerned private citizen.

“Like many Americans, I’ve watched with growing alarm and despair as the American presidency now degenerates into a reality show. We watch as the behavior of our political leaders spiral downward,” said Johnson, acknowledging that he worked for an administration that made mistakes, had setbacks and endured leaks. “I need not chronicle in detail all of the problems. There are plenty of reporters, journalists, talking heads and commentators who are doing a fine job of that right now. This may be good for ratings, but it is not good for the welfare of the country.”

Johnson, a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American Bar Association, said equally as depressing is what the American people have come to expect of their political leadership. “We watch as this new standard of behavior trickles down into American politics. A candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives can now criminally assault a reporter one day and get elected the next,” he said.

Johnson said he has great respect and admiration for President Donald Trump’s new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who, like him, also served as secretary of Homeland Security before Trump tapped Kelly last month to be his chief of staff.

“John Kelly is my friend. He is a four-star Marine and a patriot. People say that the job he and I both once occupied is the most difficult job in Washington. That’s not true. It may rank in the top five, but the White House chief of staff is the most difficult job in Washington,” Johnson said. “But if there is a difficult job to do, John will be the first to volunteer to do it. It runs in Kelly’s family. The cover of this week’s Time magazine labels John ‘Trump’s last hope.’ I hope John succeeds and is given the latitude to succeed in bringing order and civility to this White House.”

“But what I am talking about today is bigger than John Kelly.”

Johnson recalled that in 1978 he interned for New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom he called a “brilliantly scholarly man.” He said Moynihan once wrote about "defining deviancy down,” a permanent precept in which intolerable behavior becomes tolerable.

“When it comes to the downward spiral and standards for the age of our political leaders, we must pray that this is not the new normal. I fear that it is,” Johnson said.  Then he challenged all lawyers in the room and leaders in the profession to “take care that a similar downward spiral in standards is not happening to us. We must insist that it is not happen.”

Johnson said that the young people in the legal profession are watching.

“We must explain to our young apprentices that somehow what is acceptable for our national political leaders is not acceptable for you. If a second-year male associate at Paul Weiss had directed to a courtroom adversary the same things our president has said publicly about women, he would and should have been fired before he got back to the office,” Johnson said. “None of us litigators in this room need to spend much time thinking about what we would do with an associate who made public comments about the ethnic heritage of a judge in a case we were handling for one of our clients.

Johnson said that in today’s environment, lawyers must rededicate themselves to the following principles for those we train and mentor. He then expounded on those principles:

“First, our word is our bond. We must not give our word unless we know we can deliver on that which we’ve promised. Adherence to a promise breeds trust and respect. And trust and respect are everything.

“Second, there should be no compromise in our demands for truth and accuracy. There are no false facts or alternative facts. These phrases are noncircular and should not be allowed to settle into our vocabulary.

“Third, as we watch so many in government make illegal, unauthorized disclosures of classified and sensitive information, we must remind new lawyers about the sanctity of privileged information and client confidence and the serious consequences for those who make unauthorized disclosures of these things.

“Fourth, let us rededicate ourselves to treating each other with respect. Treat others -- superiors and subordinates -- as you would want to be treated. Never forget what it was like to be the new kid in the office and how you were treated. Recall those who took the time to mentor and speak to you with courtesy and patience, and on the other hand those who took the opportunity to put you down to build themselves up. Include others in your decision-making. Make no major decisions without consulting with your subordinates.   This leads to better more sustainable decisions. Good leadership involves loyalty and loyalty is a two-way street. Loyalty is earned and not extracted as a condition for a job or for the fear of losing one. Loyalty derives from the content of one’s character. A good leader knows that he too is part of a team and that constant references of I, me and my, devalue the contributions of other members of the team. A good leader knows that the most outstanding performance is inspired not extracted by fear. Tolerate and celebrate the diversity of this nation; respect and learn from our differences. Intolerance of those who are of a different reflects a narrow mind and a small heart.

Finally, as I have said many times in public life, those who know history learn from it. Those who don’t know the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them. Those who know history know that the boat with leaks is bound to sink. Those who know history know presidential overreach is met with an equal and opposite reaction from the legislative and judicial branches of our government. Those who know history know that a president who attempts to interfere in a criminal investigation and fires a special prosecutor is on a path to impeachment. Those who know history know that it is possible to miscalculate and stumble into war. Those who know history know that our country is great and it never stopped being great.”