In a signature theme of its first 100 days, the Trump administration, encouraged by conservative media outlets, has launched an assault on civil servants the likes of which should have gone out of style in the McCarthy era. Attacks on their credibility, motivations, future employment, and basic missions have become standard fare for White House press briefings and initiatives. In doing so, the administration and its backers may be crippling their legacy from the start by casting away the experts and implementers who not only make the executive agenda real but provide critical services for ordinary Americans. But in a move that should trouble all regardless of political affiliation, they also run the risk of undermining fundamental democratic principles of American governance.
Searching for policy-based or political rationale for these moves overlooks a key point: that the United States civil service can be an enormous asset for presidential administrations regardless of party, and undermining it belies a misunderstanding of what public servants actually do. These good folks, the vast majority of whom do not live in Washington, get up in the morning to cut social security checks, maintain aircraft carriers, treat veterans, guard the border, find Osama bin Laden, and yes, work hard to protect the president and make his policies look good. Many of them earn less than they would in the private sector and are deeply committed to serving the American people. Any effort to undercut them is irrational on its face.
The attacks continue several themes from Mr. Trump’s campaign that made for good television then, but poor governance now.
Trump spent his campaign painting Washington as corrupt and inept, an overblown charge that nevertheless has some merit. There is certainly room to clean up D.C.’s act. But Trump’s supporters, and at times even the mainstream press, go further today, accusing civil servants of conspiracy against the president, leaks designed to embarrass his administration, and even manipulation of geopolitics (some absurdly blamed the “deep state” for the tragic chemical weapons attacks in Syria) — all without evidence. Civil servants present an easy target: They are rarely portrayed as societal heroes and have few external advocates. Likewise, they aren’t generally permitted to publicly respond to charges against them, no matter how preposterous — or even explain the value of their work. For all these reasons, it’s been simpler for Trump’s spokespeople and surrogates to blame them for the administration’s own growing pains and infighting. After all, who knew how complex being president would be?
Trump’s aggressive villainization of anyone who disagrees with him has continued into his administration. In contrast, policymaking by its nature involves dissent. Trump and his team have shown little tolerance for it, even when it would make their policy execution stronger — a habit consistent with anti-intellectualism and anti-expert sentiment in their political base. As a result, policymakers and analysts practicing their craft by dissenting or offering contrasting advice are deemed out of line rather than competent. The intelligence community has long been in Trump’s sights, particularly since presenting findings on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton.
For such actions, career analysts have been deemed politicized, when the very act of offering uncomfortable analysis to their boss is perhaps the most important and apolitical pursuit they could undertake. Signatories of the State Department “dissent channel” cable — a long-standing forum of policy debate — on Trump’s travel ban were likewise advised that they’d be better off quitting their jobs than offering alternative views. Just as troublesome is the apparent loyalty screening of civil servants and candidates for non-political positions in the executive branch. A talented career hire tapped to run a Defense Department think tank was pressured to withdraw from his prospective role after it resurfaced that he was among the Republican national security experts who had signed a “Never Trump” letter during the campaign. Trump’s advisors seem content to isolate themselves from awkward advice or even a whiff of constructive criticism.
During his campaign and transition, Trump and his surrogates suggested military or intelligence officials involved in policies he did not support would be purged from the ranks. Such a purge as such hasn’t come to pass; indeed, Trump has lauded both communities on their own turf at Langley and the Pentagon. But the administration has concurrently taken baffling actions against civil servants in senior appointments, leaving consequential posts — such as those responsible for embassy security, nuclear security, and ambassadorships empty for months rather than invite career appointees put in place by President Barack Obama to stay. (The degree to which such vacancies put the United States at risk will, frighteningly, probably not be revealed until a crisis occurs.) Worse, conservative media supporters of Trump have lobbied hard against individual staffers. Career servants rarely see themselves in the press, but recently experts like Chris Backemeyer, Alan Eyres, Andrew Quinn, Yael Lempert, and Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, among others, have been subject to personal attacks in conservative media outlets for the sin of working on portfolios that were part of Obama’s policy agenda. That these staffers were involved for their expertise, rather than partisan or positional affiliation, seems lost on pundits advocating their dismissal.
Cutting off your nose
These anti-civil servant campaigns have been neither solely rhetorical, nor anecdotal. Trump’s administration, in some cases supported by Congress, is well into a broader campaign for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Concrete steps can be found in the recently lifted federal hiring freeze (a step that offers little savings in the long run and prevents the government from recruiting much-needed talent); actively excluding expert staff from deliberations and decisions; reviving a congressional procedure permitting appropriations amendments to reduce an individual federal employee’s salary to $1; and proposing devastating budget cuts to many non-defense agencies. Recent revelations about the gutting and restructuring of U.S. foreign assistance is perhaps the most egregious, but likely not the last example.
Trump and his team have a right to their make their own decisions, even the right to be wrong. However, in electing him the American people trusted that he would not only occupy the bully pulpit and be the populist leader-in-chief but someone who would make use of the full scope of the federal government’s expertise, capabilities, and reach. (On this note, his apparent unawareness of, and surprise at, the full extent of the bureaucracies under his authority should be grounds for yet further alarm).
His failure to do so is likely to cause damage beyond Trump’s agenda. That he is tacitly or actively undermining civil servants’ ability to do their jobs should be deeply worrisome not only to Trump’s detractors, but to all Americans in two respects: It slows down and, in some cases, brings to a halt a range of critical government functions, and it undermines the broader democratic principles that Americans have long held (or should hold) dear. Both are wholly unrelated to politics or the administration in question. They are also generally independent of the interests of the bureaucrats themselves, although some concern for their well-being shouldn’t be controversial.
Pulling qualified people from important civil service postings or otherwise preventing them from doing their jobs will undermine the government’s ability to perform basic functions in support of the American people and their interests. This will sound either obvious (to those who have regard for the importance of a healthy government), or advantageous (to the likes of Steve Bannon and others who apparently loathe what they have erroneously deemed the “deep state”). But for the many who fall between these extremes, the rank and file in Washington is irrelevant, interchangeable, even superfluous — none of which is true to fact. In reality, most the individuals serving the U.S. government (including those in more arcane and cobwebbed corners) exist to keep the trains, roads, planes, and hospitals running (somewhat) on time, or even running at all. As in all sectors of employment, there exists bloated payrolls, poor performers, duplication, and even fraud in the federal workforce. And given that they are employed on taxpayers’ dime, and in their interest, the highest expectations and oversight are merited. But for the most part these are trained individuals with expertise and motivation who are making some piece of the machine that needs to run, well, run.
In addition to expertise, these individuals often bring experience to the processes of policymaking which, again, is not easily replaced. This includes not only the ability to cite federal code or navigate budget procedures, but also the ability to say, “we tried that and it didn’t work” — something that can save a new administration a lot of effort, assuming they’re willing to listen. Having employees who have been around the block not only helps the president avoid making the same mistakes as his predecessor, but it means preserving relationships with foreign and domestic entities. This makes the business of government run much more smoothly and reduces opportunities for misinterpretation. It’s hard to imagine a more critical skill than being able to pick up the phone and call a congressional staffer, a religious leader, or foreign diplomat, and explain a situation or make a straightforward ask. This is all the more relevant in a crisis, for which Trump’s current strategy makes his government frighteningly ill-prepared. Analysts, policymakers, and implementers can also offer the ground truth of how key audiences will react to policy change. Such advice may not be valuable to an administration set on disruption but should be highly prized by the American people. Even if the administration never budges from its original policy positions, proposals that are scrutinized, red-teamed, and launched by experts will be better considered and informed by the type of expertise and experience described above.
An assault on democracy
Depending on how far Trump takes these attacks, all these concerns may be secondary to the potential for erosion of democracy and good governance. First, there is the easy and unnerving comparison to the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, during which the senator from Wisconsin orchestrated a government-wide witch hunt for those considered to be “soft” on communism, if not actual communists themselves. (Trump’s personal connection to McCarthy by way of the latter’s lead counsel, Roy Cohn — a longtime Trump friend and advisor — is perhaps not entirely coincidental.) McCarthy’s campaign sowed distrust and paranoia across the U.S. government and American society, stifling freedom of expression and leading to the firing of dozens of public servants for their beliefs, or in many cases suspected beliefs (many targeted were in no way sympathetic to communism). This may seem an extreme comparison, as there is not yet any indication the president plans to hunt down and prosecute those who hold a particular set of beliefs; however, a mentality and atmosphere of suspicion, in which one might be fired for expressing certain ideas or simply working in certain offices is fundamentally opposed to the principles of democracy and civil rights on which the U.S. government is based.
Pushing away civil servants who are perceived to disagree with the party in power also sets up the U.S. electoral system as winner-takes-all contest more closely resembling a third-world dictatorship than the United States (other Trump tendencies, such as placing immediate family members in senior posts, make this comparison all the more apt). While historically a new administration replaces senior policymakers with its own ideological allies, the bureaucracy itself has remained apolitical. This allows for each party — and specifically the party not in power at any given time — to feel at least somewhat assured that critical national security decisions will be informed by something other than pure politics, i.e., that the individuals in power will not take steps which first and foremost serve their continued reign and personal interests as opposed to the larger interests of the nation. When this assumption is challenged, the stakes of a presidential election and electoral politics in general become astronomically higher, and can create the underlying conditions for violent conflict or even civil war. When political entities view victory as the only means of survival and see their rivals’ success as a guarantee of their own political demise, the gloves of civility come off in ways that could make the tactics of 2016 seem benign.
Whether they realize it or not, Americans rely on the continuity of the U.S. civil service regardless of political environment. From predicting hurricanes to providing independent military advice, from monitoring pandemics to managing air traffic, assuming the basic trustworthiness of the average bureaucrat is foundational to day-to-day life. Testing their competence and pressing the basis of their views is valid and worthwhile. Undermining them and treating them as a foe to be vanquished should be disturbing to those in and out of Washington. It is one thing to offer substantive criticisms — welcome in the U.S. political system — and another to take on “institutions in American life that are traditionally charged with establishing the factual basis that inform national-security decisions.” Writing in January in the Atlantic, Jon Finer, former chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, continues: “If Trump prevails in these fights, he could do more than simply enact his agenda; he could alter aspects of our political culture in ways that will be difficult to reverse.”
Even if, with all of that, one still views the civil service with extreme skepticism, treating the bureaucracy as an enemy makes it more difficult to address some of its very real flaws, of which there are many. Longevity is rewarded over merit. Hiring practices are lengthy, burdensome, and make it almost impossible to rapidly bring on board either young or experienced talent for temporary or permanent needs. Security clearance policies are both out of date and poorly managed, as evidenced by real challenges facing Trump’s own administration. Performance evaluation is inconsistent and too often has little impact on whether employees are retained, promoted, or let go, even when serious problems are identified. Talent management, skill identification and development, and the flexibility toward new challenges are frequently employed buzzwords that are rarely internalized.
Despite all that, many talented and passionate Americans are drawn to public service, carving out careers that work for themselves and for the nation despite these flaws. Trump, his administration, and Congress could — rather than declaring the civil service the enemy — offer agencies the flexibility and tools to recruit, develop, promote, and retain talent — and shed poor performers. Civil service reform like the proposals offered by the Bipartisan Policy Center in its recent report is an unsexy pursuit (and not likely one to receive much attention in Breitbart), but will advance Trump’s agenda far more than casting away civil servants altogether or conducting targeted witch hunts against those he views as threats.
Continuing to discredit and dissemble the civil service would be a grave mistake for the president. He and his team were elected in part due to their status as outsiders which, while they may be loath to admit, means there are a lot of things they don’t know. An apolitical body of experts and administrators exists specifically to fill this gap. To ignore it — or worse, to destroy it — risks not only the Trump administration’s ability to implement its agenda and succeed, but the entire premise on which the American system of government rests. It is incumbent on Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and veteran bureaucrats like Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon — individuals who came from that world but now have Donald Trump’s ear — to defend their people and the bureaucracy as a whole, while allowing that it has flaws which can and should be repaired. Without them, the system will likely break in ways we can’t predict or easily fix.
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