As President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE’s federal government shutdown deprives hundreds of thousands of federal employees with paychecks just before Christmas and the New Year, it seems a good time to remember the invaluable contributions career federal employees provide. Except for two years clerking for federal judges, I spent nearly all my federal government career at Department of Justice (DOJ) and it is there I met a penultimate career federal employee named David Margolis.
Margolis, who died in 2016 at age 76, had been the longest-serving lawyer at DOJ, beginning his service under Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach who had been Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s Deputy. Margolis served under 19 U.S. Attorney General’s over the span of 51 years. In the leadership offices at the Justice Department, one’s stature is marked by the difficulty of the matters placed in one’s “portfolio.” Margolis had the most difficult ones; including being tasked with the search of White House Counsel Vince Foster’s office after Foster’s suicide during the Clinton administration, and deciding whether to seek discipline for the department lawyers who had authorized the practice of waterboarding.
When I was counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, I quickly learned that her go-to question on tough issues was the question: “What does Margolis say?” At my very first meeting with him, I was representing the attorney general while Margolis was representing the deputy attorney general (Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderArkansas legislature splits Little Rock in move that guarantees GOP seats Oregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps Christie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group MORE then) in a meeting with several supervisors from sections affected by a policy memo. After some intense discussions about the merits of the memorandum (to which neither Margolis nor I contributed) the various supervisors decided the memorandum should be given to Attorney General Reno to sign. They turned to me and asked me if I agreed and, if so, would I deliver the memo to her. Knowing nothing about the merits of the matter, I relied on instinct in answering: “I think Eric should sign” – referring to then Deputy Attorney General Holder. There was a moment of silence in the room when literally every head turned towards Margolis as this unknown newbie had just suggested passing the hot potato to Margolis’ boss. Margolis paused for a moment and then gave me a broad grin. “Shan’s right,” he said. “The Deputy should sign.” In this small exchange, I later understood I had accomplished two things: (1) I had protected my principal – the attorney general – from potential responsibility over a controversial issue; and (2) earned Margolis’s approval. The latter would prove a far more enduring accomplishment in my tenure at the DOJ.
A career employee like Margolis epitomized the stability of our nation’s institutions. He brought the perspective and objectivity that is required to navigate an institution through the storms of politics. That is not to say career employees are apolitical. Margolis was astutely political. He had to be in order to be effective. But the very fact of his career service made his advice a reality check against the political agendas of the moment for a generation of United States Attorney Generals. President Trump’s callous willingness to play with the livelihoods of federal employees denigrates their value and displays his ignorance as to their value. The Acting AG Matthew Whitaker – a Trump lackey – reflects the same as he reportedly ignored ethics advice to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe and ignored advice to refrain from signing a ban on bump-stocks lest challenges to his legitimacy as attorney general later de-legitimize any regulations he authorized.
The last time I saw Margolis was after the DOJ-wide event commemorating his 50 years of service. I asked him if he was retiring. He said: “Nah, that would make too many people happy.” In his career, Margolis often gave answers that did not please the political leaders. But those leaders all were wise enough to know that they needed to hear those answers and, usually, heed them.
Trump’s devaluation of federal employees hurts more than their morale and pocketbooks. It also hurts the future of cultivating a federal work force made up of the best and brightest. Institutions, like countries, are greater than the people that make them up. But we must never forget that it is those people who make it all work. To devalue our federal employees is to devalue our country.
Shan Wu @shanlonwu was a career prosecutor and counsel to former Attorney General Janet Reno. He is currently in private practice & a CNN legal analyst.