One advantage of a vague slogan like “drain the swamp” is that it can mean different things to different people. Does it mean ousting elected officials from their comfy seats in Washington, D.C., which is often said (and wrongly at that) to be built on a swamp? Perhaps it means cleaning up the murky influence of donors and campaign contributions in the nation’s capital. Maybe it even means washing away the toxic effects of lobbyists and well-funded interests groups in legislation and policymaking.
For President Donald Trump, however, draining the swamp appears to mean undermining the nation’s professional civil service. The White House released an unusual executive order on Wednesday night that could give the president the power to hire and fire a broad range of federal civil servants for any reason, or none at all. If fully implemented, the order would circumvent long-standing legal protections for government workers that were designed to insulate them from politicization.
This is a familiar theme over the last four years for Trump, who has complained all along that his presidency has been undermined by a “deep state” of federal employees who oppose him. His search for scapegoats for his own poor governance meshed well with the conservative movement’s disdain for civil servants in general, as well as its desire to demolish what it calls the “administrative state” of federal agencies and regulators. At risk is the hard-fought dream of a nonpartisan civil service without cronies or sycophants, and the confidence of Americans in their own government.
This latest executive order would create a new category of civil servants known as “Schedule F” and outlines how to shift a wide range of positions out of existing categories and into this new one. The White House made clear that it sought to seize greater flexibility in removing and adding federal employees who might otherwise be protected from dismissal by law. “Under the order, Federal agencies will have more flexibility to hire ‘Schedule F’ employees and will also be able to remove them without going through a lengthy appeals process,” the White House said when announcing the move.
The order itself framed the move as a good-governance measure of sorts, claiming that the problem was shoddy work on federal employees’ part. “High performance by such employees can meaningfully enhance agency operations, while poor performance can significantly hinder them,” it stated. “Senior agency officials report that poor performance by career employees in policy-relevant positions has resulted in long delays and substandard-quality work for important agency projects, such as drafting and issuing regulations.”
But the move takes place against a backdrop of Trumpian ire toward the civil service. As I noted in August, Trump and his allies see no difference between his personal political interests and the policy goals that drive the federal government. That worldview has led the president to dismiss officials like former FBI Director James Comey, who resisted pressure to drop a criminal case against one of Trump’s top allies in 2017, and purge nearly a dozen inspectors general earlier this year from their watchdog posts after the Senate acquitted him of abuse of power. More recently, Trump has hinted that he would fire current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Bill Barr after the election if they don’t make politically charged arrests before November 3 to help him win.
Trump’s move against civil service protections is a dramatic escalation of this well-established trend. The order drew immediate criticism from union leaders who represent federal workers. “This is the most profound undermining of the civil service in our lifetimes,” Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement on Thursday. “The president has doubled down on his effort to politicize and corrupt the professional service. This executive order strips due process rights and protections from perhaps hundreds of thousands of federal employees and will enable political appointees and other officials to hire and fire these workers at will.”
Lawmakers, however, took relatively little notice of the White House maneuver. The imminent presidential debate on Thursday may have drawn attention on Capitol Hill away from what could be a sea change in the executive branch. An exception was Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who connected the move to Trump’s history of corrupt behavior. “In his obsession to twist our govt to benefit him personally, Pres. Trump is now attacking the idea of a professional Civil Service, which dates back 100 years to the time of Vermonter Pres. Chester Arthur,” Leahy wrote on Twitter. “We must stand up for Federal Employees serving America, not Trump.”
What sort of civil servants could be subject to dismissal under Trump’s plan? Perhaps the most high-profile example would be Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Trump can fire Cabinet members, agency heads, and hundreds of other political appointees at will. But Fauci is what’s known as a “Title 42 employee,” a specialized category of federal employees that’s used to fill scientific positions. Under the order’s terms, White House officials could recategorize Fauci as a Schedule F employee and then dismiss him, effectively stripping him of his ability to appeal against his own removal. The administration could then refill his reclassified position as NIAID director with far fewer hurdles than normal.
As if there wasn’t already enough at stake in the 2020 election, the dream of a professionalized civil service without cronyism or sycophancy now also appears to be on the table. In theory, Congress could try to rewrite federal civil service laws to reverse Trump’s order. But a more surefire way to undo it would be to elect a different president, who could retract it. The order lays out a 90-day timeline for federal agencies to report which positions might be subject to change. That would make the deadline January 19, 2021—one day before Inauguration Day.