The Trump Administration’s Multifaceted Attack on the Civil Service

Since the transition and Trump’s earliest days in office, we’ve seen a sustained assault on the civil service. This has taken many forms, including targeting employees based on their prior work, repeated efforts to politicize law enforcement, attacks against the intelligence community as the “deep state,” efforts to reassign employees at the Department of the Interior, and improper actions at the State Department. These repeated attacks on career civil servants are all aimed at what Steve Bannon described as the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”  

Civil servants are loyal to the Constitution and rule of law, not to any one administration. So, as scholars of democratic backsliding have warned us, the civil service is a frequent target for rulers looking to dismantle checks and balances. Indeed, the Trump administration’s battle to undermine the civil service is reminiscent of what authoritarians have done elsewhere. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated power by firing tens of thousands of civil servants. Leaders in other countries experiencing democratic decline, like Thailand, Poland, and Hungary, have made similar moves in efforts to gain more unchecked power.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the Trump administration move against the civil service in three different ways.

  • Agency Purges. The Washington Post reported that over a dozen career civil servants from the Department of Veterans Affairs had been demoted from leadership positions to lower-visibility roles — in an alleged “loyalty purge” aimed at increasing the number of Trump loyalists in VA leadership.  Protect Democracy has launched a FOIA investigation into how and why the widespread reassignments occurred.
  • New Rules on Hiring and Firing Administrative Law Judges. On July 10, 2018, President Trump signed Executive Order 13843, an order that changed the hiring process of administrative law judges (ALJs) — removing them from the competitive service.  And the Justice Department issued a secret memorandum at the same time undermining the traditional rules protecting ALJs against being fired for improper purposes. Protect Democracy Counsel Stephanie Llanes and Legal Director Justin Florence published an essay on Take Care laying out why the Trump administration has not been honest about what it is doing here — by falsely claiming this was a necessary response to a Supreme Court decision.  We’re seeking records from the Trump administration to bring to light what is really going on, and stand ready to take further action as appropriate.
  • Threatening to Revoke Security Clearances for Dissenters. On July 23, 2018, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that the President was “exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearances” from former intelligence and national security officials who had criticized his refusal to confront Russia. This marked a dangerous and improper threat to use the tools of government to retaliate against speech and dissent — a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Protect Democracy Counsels Ben Berwick and Kristy Parker have published an essay on Lawfare explaining the dangers of these threats. As they write: “The White House’s actions violate the First Amendment rights of both their direct targets and, perhaps more significantly, the wider class of people who are reasonably chilled by the threats—namely, civil servants and employees of contractors who hold clearances. And courts have sufficient authority to stop these constitutional violations.”

These three actions to undermine the civil service have each occurred through a different mechanism. One was through a set of actions taken by political officials at an important federal agency. The second was carried out through an Executive Order and Justice Department memo. The third was based on threats from the White House podium and the President himself. Yet they share in common that they are part of a sustained assault on the civil service.

While we’re working now to protect the civil service from being dismantled by the Trump administration, over the long run we can do more to ensure a strong, effective civil service that serves the American people. Protect Democracy’s Roadmap for Renewal proposes a set of reforms to protect and modernize the civil service to enable government officials to perform their duties in an effective and nonpartisan fashion. These include:

    Strengthening enforcement mechanisms to respond to politicians who retaliate, discriminate against, or intimidate civil servants based on political affiliation or work in prior administrations; Requiring that each agency create a “dissent channel” to allow civil servants to voice objections to policies, corruption, or inappropriate interference by political appointees, with appropriate whistleblower protections; Taking steps to ensure that administrative judges can’t be hired and fired based on their loyalty to the President; Ensuring that civil servants can bring their cases directly in court if the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is not fully staffed and able to provide redress.

Ultimately, we also recommend establishing a nonpartisan commission to recommend reforms to modernize the civil service in light of the changing nature of the federal government workforce. This needs to be done in a bipartisan way with a focus on how best to do our government’s work in a way that upholds the law, serves the public interest, and reflects our democratic values. Reforming and protecting the civil service can’t just be about advancing the interests of one man or one party.