Trump White House clashes with resistant civil servants

Tensions between President Trump and the civil service have spilled out into the open as the bureaucracy’s career employees publicly clash with their chief executive.

Civil servants were always bound to be at odds with the president, who promised to drain the government “swamp.” But now a string of spats with the bureaucracy, culminating Friday with the president’s controversial immigration executive order, has forced that bad blood to become public. After the acting attorney general refused to defend Trump’s order on Monday night, he fired her. Meanwhile, hundreds of State Department diplomats are reportedly signing on to a dissent memo criticizing the policy.

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The moves are the latest signals of unease from a civil service facing a 180-degree shift from the previous administration and a new president who repeatedly lambasted the bureaucracy while on the campaign stump. 

“I don’t recall any kind of dissent like this happening either in a Democratic or Republican administration — this is clearly unusual,” said Chris Lu, the former deputy secretary of Labor in the Obama administration.

“There is a very powerful dissent that is now coming to the forefront among career employees. It’s unusual in my experience to have this, but we are dealing with an unusual president.”

Anita McBride, a veteran of the three previous Republican administrations, agreed that the open clashes between the administration and its civil service are more apparent than ever. But she added that more covert disagreements aren’t unique to this White House.

“These may be overt protests, but in bureaucracies, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes and under-the-radar usurping of presidential power,” she said.

“I think it’s more open because I think they see that the president is more open.”

Trump’s Monday-evening dismissal of acting Attorney General Sally Yates provided the starkest example of discord between the civil service and the president.

As criticism continued to mount over Trump’s order to temporarily ban citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and to halt all refugee resettlements for four months, Yates told her employees that the Department of Justice wouldn’t defend the order in court.

Hours later, the White House fired Yates, an Obama-administration holdover, and announced the change with an unusually harsh statement. Trump then appointed a replacement who agreed to enforce the order.

“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States,” the White House statement read.

“Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

The administration took a similarly aggressive stance toward the revelations that hundreds of diplomats are reportedly signing on to a dissent memo, a State Department tradition dating back to the Vietnam War that allows lower-ranking officials to elevate concerns about the agency’s policies.

“A policy which closes our doors to over 200 million legitimate travelers in the hopes of preventing a small number of travelers who intend to harm America … will not achieve its aim of making our country safer,” the draft reads, according to a copy obtained by the Brookings Institution.

“Such a policy runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants.”

That letter comes days after a handful of high-ranking career diplomats stepped down amid reports that most were asked to leave by the incoming administration.

News of the memo prompted a stern rebuke from White House press secretary Sean Spicer during his Monday briefing.

“We’re talking about 109 people from seven countries the Obama administration identified, and these career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” Spicer asked. 

“They should either get with the program or they can go. This is about the safety of America.”

McBride said that those comments aren’t unusual in the White House, telling The Hill a story about a meeting she ran during an ambassador orientation during President George W. Bush’s term. One career foreign service ambassador stood up and asked what they should do if they disagreed with the president.

McBride told the ambassador that civil servants with disagreements could always leave — although the official ended up staying. 

There have been further signs of tension and pushback in the civil service. A clampdown on the Environmental Protection Agency’s dealings with the press prompted concerns, and short-lived freezes on contracts and grants shook up some public employees and their allies.

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The executive branch antagonism has reportedly inspired suspicion among Trump loyalists. On Monday, Foreign Policy reported that Trump’s National Security Council is producing fewer documents than its counterparts in previous administrations, an apparent attempt to curtail leaks.

And it’s turned the civil service into the last line of defense for liberals facing a Republican Congress and White House. Yates’s refusal to defend the travel ban turned her into an overnight hero on the left, while various Twitter accounts purporting to be run by rogue agency staffers remain popular, despite the lack of proof that they’re actually run by dissident staffers.

Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, told The Hill that the animosity between the two camps is “absolutely” more heated than at the start of previous administrations.

To Hess, that’s not a big surprise. Trump campaigned by blasting the bureaucracy and kicked off his administration with a federal hiring freeze. And it can’t be discounted that many civil servants likely didn’t vote for him.

“By and large, civil servants probably were not big among Trump’s voters,” he said.

“It’s not just that you are starting with a group that are irritated by one new memo or action, it’s a group where the majority did not favor Trump in the first place. That adds fuel to this.”

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The running battle with the bureaucracy is likely “startling” to Trump, Hess added, since the businessman is used to the full control he had over his company. But the government is designed to move slowly and doesn’t often afford Trump the same immediate results that he could get by replacing Yates.

“He could do whatever he wanted — ‘you’re hired, you’re fired,’ ” Hess said.

“He’s going to find with the civil service, as opposed to the political appointees, you can’t say ‘you’re fired.’ If you say ‘you are fired,’ boy, you start a process that could go on legally for years.”

McBride believes that the overt protests will settle down once Trump’s full Cabinet is confirmed, giving time for the leadership to fill out their top staff and for dissenters to step down.

But Lu, the former Obama administration official, is less sure the tensions will ease, particularly if Trump keeps up his tough responses.

“It's not helpful for the president or his spokespeople to be attacking them,” he said.

“I don’t think this will chill them,” Lu said. “I think this is going to embolden career civil servants.”