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Donald Trump Declares Total War on the Civil Service

The Republican National Convention is a testament to the president’s effort to permanently recast the executive branch in his own warped image.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Monday was the first day of the Republican Party’s national convention to renominate President Donald Trump, and it dwelled on little else. The quadrennial conventions are typically used by the parties to lay out a governing vision and a policy platform, to elevate rising stars and honor party elders, and to make a direct case to voters who tune in. But if the first night of four to come is any guide, this year’s convention will be molded around a cult of personality. Speaker after speaker at Monday’s affair—some of whom were blood relations while others lacked that excuse—lauded the president in hyperbolic tones. Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and the convention’s first speaker, described Trump as “the bodyguard of Western civilization.”

In between those speeches, the GOP played glossy, well-produced clips of Trump hosting various groups inside the White House, including people freed from hostage situations. Beyond the content of these clips, the repeated inclusion of the White House raised new questions about whether the administration and this convention are violating the Hatch Act, which forbids almost all executive-branch employees from engaging in a variety of political activities, especially with official time or resources. While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are personally exempt from the law, many White House aides and officials are not.

Then again, what difference would it make if they did violate the Hatch Act? The law’s ultimate enforcement mechanism, at least where the White House is concerned, is the president’s personal discretion, and Trump has made abundantly clear that he has no interest in enforcing a law that would hinder his subordinates from cheerleading him or his causes. As Trump makes the case for a second term as the nation’s chief executive, it’s worth considering the implications it could have for the executive branch itself—and for the long-fought dream of a professional, non-partisan civil service.

Modern American presidents often filled multiple public and private roles, each of which carried its own duties and obligations. Presidents are the leaders of political parties, the chief of the executive branch, and the U.S. head of state. Like most people, they also have personal obligations to family and friends. Ethical quandaries are inescapable, and most presidents have made at least an effort to avoid them. Some have failed. Richard Nixon resigned after abusing his office to cover up a burglary that targeted the Democratic Party’s headquarters. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying to a grand jury about an extramarital affair with a White House employee.

Trump draws no line between his body natural and his body politic. He regularly merges his official duties with his business interests, his partisan goals with his policy objectives, and his personal whims with his professional obligations. He sees no issue with extorting a friendly foreign government to sabotage a political rival. He welcomed the opportunity to funnel government and diplomatic business to his personal businesses. Government officials who hesitate or resist these corrupt acts are dismissed as agents of the mythical “deep state” that purportedly seeks to overthrow his administration.

Those around him have taken the same approach. Kellyanne Conway, one of his closest White House advisors, routinely flouted federal ethics guidelines during interviews and media appearances. A February 2017 Fox News interview where she urged viewers to buy goods from Ivanka Trump’s boycotted lifestyle brand even drew a rare bipartisan rebuke. In June 2019, the Office of Special Counsel formally recommended that Conway be removed from her post, citing multiple high-profile breaches of the law. Trump did not remove her from her post then or now; she announced over the weekend that she would resign at the end of the month for family reasons. And while Conway may be the most egregious example, she’s far from the only one: At least 10 high-ranking Trump officials were found to have violated the Hatch Act in some way as of April 2019.

In theory, the federal government is supposed to work for the American people. Over the past few years, that focus has shifted toward working for Trump himself. Televised cabinet meetings and similar events often feature top officials praising the president himself for all of his hard work and effort, as if making Trump feel better about himself is the point of the government. It helps, of course, that Trump has partially abandoned Senate confirmations for a wide swath of top executive-branch posts and turned to pliable “acting” officials to lead key agencies, sometimes with threadbare legal rationales for their leadership.

There are signs that the Trump administration may try to reshape the federal civil service if he wins a second term. The RNC approved a resolution ahead of this week’s convention “in favor of providing the necessary tools for President Trump to finish draining the swamp.” The resolution itself complains about “rampant Democrat obstruction” by the “entrenched bureaucracy” and other nefarious forces. “While President Trump has appointed excellent agency chairpersons, directors, and administrators, their efforts at reform are often stymied and obstructed by mid-level agency staff,” it reads. To fix this, the RNC called for a “complete overhaul of the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA) so that President Trump can thoroughly ‘drain the swamp’” for full GOP control of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court to aid him.

It’s unclear what exactly Republicans mean by a “complete overhaul” of the APA, a major federal law that shapes how federal agencies craft new rules and regulations. The Trump administration has already suffered two major defeats at the Supreme Court for violating the APA: in Department of Commerce v. New York, where the justices effectively quashed a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, and in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, where they ruled against the effort to unwind the DACA program. In those rulings, as well as dozens of losses in the lower courts, justices and judges chastised the Trump administration for not hewing closely enough to the APA’s requirements when rewriting federal policies.

More sweeping changes are also no longer unthinkable. In April, Politico reported that Mike Rigas, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, told associates that he believes the Pendleton Act of 1883 may be unconstitutional. The nineteenth-century law moved the federal government away from patronage jobs and toward a merit-based civil service; Congress passed it two years after a disgruntled job seeker assassinated President James Garfield. According to Politico, Rigas said that he thinks all executive-branch jobs should be held by political appointees, which would allow presidents to hire and fire virtually every civil servant at will.

Reversing more than a century of civil-service reforms may ultimately be beyond Trump’s powers, even with a second term. But his first term is a stark testament to his ability to reshape the executive branch to carry out his whims. Four years ago, it was hard to imagine that a president would fire an FBI director who wouldn’t quash a damaging investigation into his allies or oversee a purge of inspectors general after one of them exposed a major scandal or openly retaliate against ambassadors and active-duty soldiers who testified against him in Congress. Four years from now, it may be hard to imagine anything else. L’etat, c’est Trump.