July 24, 2022
On Friday, Axios began to publish a deeply researched and important series by Jonathan Swan, explaining that if former president Trump retakes power, he and allies like his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), and head of Trump’s social media network Devin Nunes are determined to purge our nonpartisan civil service and replace it with loyalists. In a normal administration, a new president gets to replace around 4000 political appointees, but most government employees are in positions designed to be nonpartisan. Trump’s team wants to gut this system and put in place people loyal to him and his agenda.
When he campaigned for the presidency, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of officeholders who, he suggested, were just sucking tax dollars. Once in office, though, Trump grew increasingly angry at the civil servants who continued to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia, insisting that figures like former FBI director Robert Mueller and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, were Democrats who wanted to hound him from office. (They were, in fact, Republicans.)
Trump’s first impeachment trial inflamed his fury at those he considered disloyal. The day after Republican senators acquitted him on February 6, 2020, he fired two key impeachment witnesses: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top expert on Ukraine at the National Security Council. Ironically, Vindman had testified in the impeachment hearings that he had reassured his father, who had lived in the Soviet Union and was worried about Vindman’s testifying against the president, not to worry because in America, “right matters.” Trump fired Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, at the same time, although he had nothing to do with the impeachment.*
A Trump advisor told CNN the firings were intended to demonstrate that disloyalty to the president would not be tolerated.
Within days, Trump had put fierce loyalist John McEntee in charge of the White House office of personnel, urging him to ferret out anyone insufficiently loyal and to make sure the White House hired only true believers. McEntee had been Trump’s personal aide until he failed a security clearance background check and it turned out he was under investigation for financial crimes; then–White House chief of staff John Kelly fired him, and Trump promptly transferred McEntee to his reelection campaign. On February 13, 2020, though, Trump suddenly put McEntee, who had no experience in personnel or significant government work, in charge of the hiring of the 4000 political appointees and gave him extraordinary power.
Trump also wanted to purge the 50,000 nonpartisan civil servants who are hired for their skills, rather than politics. But since 1883, those jobs have been protected from exactly the sort of political purge Trump and McEntee wanted to execute.
A policy researcher who came to Trump’s Domestic Policy Council from the Heritage Foundation, James Sherk, found that employees who work in “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating” job can be exempted from civil service protections.
On October 21, 2020, Trump signed an executive order creating a new category of public servant who could be hired by agency heads without having to go through the merit-based system in place since 1883, and could be fired at will. This new “Schedule F” would once again allow presidents to appoint cronies to office, while firing those insufficiently loyal. One Trump loyalist at the Office of Management and Budget identified 88% of his agency as moveable to Schedule F.
Biden rescinded Trump’s executive order on January 22, 2021, just two days after taking office.
According to Swan, Trump has not forgotten the plan. Since the January 6 insurrection, he has called those former colleagues who did not support his coup “ungrateful” and “treasonous.” In a new administration, he would insist on people who had “courage,” and would reinstate the Schedule F plan in order to purge the career civil service of all employees he believes insufficiently loyal to him.
The idea of reducing our professional civil service to those who offer loyalty to a single leader is yet another fundamental attack on democracy.
Democracy depends on a nonpartisan group of functionaries who are loyal not to a single strongman but to the state itself. Loyalty to the country, rather than to a single leader, means those bureaucrats follow the law and have an interest in protecting the government. It is the weight of that loyalty that managed to stop Trump from becoming a dictator. He was thwarted by what he called the “Deep State,” people who were loyal not to him personally but to America and our laws. That loyalty was bipartisan.
Authoritarian figures expect loyalty to themselves alone, rather than to a nonpartisan government. To get that loyalty, they turn to staffers who are loyal because they are not qualified or talented enough to rise to power in a nonpartisan system. They are loyal to their boss because they could not make it in a true meritocracy, and at some level they know that (even if they insist they are disliked for their politics).
Between 1829 and 1881, all but the very highest positions throughout the government were filled by the president on the recommendations of officials in his party, so every change of administration meant weeks of office seekers hounding the president. After the Civil War, the numbers of federal jobs climbed, until by 1884 there were 131,000 people on the federal payroll. Assignment of these jobs was based not on the applicants’ skills, but on their promise to bring in votes or money for their party. Once a man scored a government job, he was expected to return part of his salary to the party’s war chest for the next election.
And then, on July 2, 1881, a man who had expected a government job and didn’t get it retaliated for his disappointment by shooting the president, President James A. Garfield, in the back as he walked up the stairs of a train station in Washington, D.C. The assassin expected that Garfield’s successor, Chester A. Arthur, would reward him with a job.
Horrified, Americans recognized that a government that was for sale by the political party in charge created men who saw government only as a way to make money and were willing to tear the entire system down to get their cut. Even though they hoped no one else would go so far as Garfield’s assassin did, they could see that such a system attracted those who could not get a decent job on their actual merits.
So in 1883, Congress passed and President Arthur signed An Act To Regulate and Improve the Civil Service of the United States, more popularly known as the Pendleton Civil Service Act. It guaranteed the government would have skilled workers by requiring applicants for positions to pass entrance exams, and then protected them from being fired by an incoming president of the opposite party. At first, only a few jobs were covered, but presidents expanded the system quickly. Our government employees became highly qualified, and loyal to the country rather than to a president.
That seems likely to change if Trump gets back into office.
*CORRECTED ON JULY 26: Colonel Yevgeny Vindman’s legal counsel Eugene Fidell and Mark Zaid wrote to clarify and correct my statement here. They write: “Like his twin Alex, Col. Yevgeny Vindman was fired from the Trump National Security Council. Both brothers had reported President Trump’s improper phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General later determined that Col. Yevgeny Vindman was fired and subjected to other serious retaliation for doing so and for holding the line on misconduct by senior Trump administration officials.”