America’s public servants: Our last, best hope
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If Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE’s election to the presidency last Tuesday was the massive temblor that shocked the American policy and political worlds, the chaotic transition to the Trump administration has been the series of aftershocks that reveal just how deep the damage to Washington’s establishments really goes.


The most rattling appointment has obviously been of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon. His media outfit became the voice of the white nationalist alt-right and his presence in the West Wing is now being praised by alt-right voices such as David Duke, Peter Brimelow and even the head of the American Nazi Party. The furor over Bannon, though, could give way to an even bigger problem: judging from the score-settling of Trump’s transition, thousands of dedicated public servants might soon be replaced with an army of hacks.

Even before Trump swept into power last week, there was a palpable fear among civil servants that the billionaire businessmen would spell the end to eight years of professionalism the federal agencies fought hard to reclaim. President Obama referenced this when he expressed his pride in his administration’s lack of any “significant scandals.” Many mid-level and non-political federal employees are wondering whether to take this as their cue to jump to the private sector. A pre-emptive walkout wouldn’t just be rash: it would take the significant blow this election has already dealt to the government’s effectiveness and make it even worse.

One need look no further than the last Republican administration to see what happens when federal departments are politicized. Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush’s pick for attorney general, made himself the center of controversy after several U.S. attorneys were dismissed for refusing to follow White House directives to prosecute its political enemies. Gonzales found himself a regular at congressional hearings and testified in a manner that flirted with perjury. The Valerie Plame scandal was equally disturbing. Members of the Bush White House proved they had no compunctions about outing undercover CIA officers to settle scores, which also happens to be a favorite pastime of Mr. Trump.

If Obama put the cork on these abuses of power, Trump could pull it right back out. A mass exodus of federal employees will not leave the new president choosing from the “best people” to fill vacancies. Instead, he’ll have his campaign’s list of loyal reactionaries.

Important surrogates owe their places on the Trump train to espousing the right talking points and lavishing the president-elect with a bit of well-placed flattery. Rudy Giuliani’s campaign to lead the State Department without an iota of foreign policy experience speaks to this, as does Bannon’s use of radio interviews with Trump to ingratiate himself and alter the candidate’s positions with leading questions.

One telling exchange between Bannon and Trump had to do with skilled immigration. When candidate Trump brought up keeping highly-educated foreign students in America, Bannon responded that there were too many Asian and Indians running companies in Silicon Valley. Congressional leaders like Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff Paul predicts no Republicans will vote to convict Trump Graham on impeachment trial: 'End this crap as quickly as possible' MORE might be able to stonewall unqualified or compromised Cabinet nominees like Giuliani or John Bolton, but Bannon and most of the 4,000 other Trump appointments will never face anywhere near the same scrutiny.

The sheer number of posts that need to be filled provides an opportunity to a roster of underlings with their own agendas. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, for instance, is responsible for some of the nation’s harshest immigration laws — he’s now using his position as a Trump adviser to push for “building the wall” without congressional approval and instituting a government registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.

Another die-hard Trump supporter, Florida attorney Sara Blackwell, who gained notoriety for her legal work to block legal immigrants from entering the U.S. labor market, was until recently a frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s talk show on Breitbart News. Blackwell’s strident rhetoric along with her links to extreme anti-immigrant groups like NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) were enough to get Trump’s attention. She spoke at two of his rallies earlier this year and channeled his backing into a campaign for the Florida State House of Representatives, withdrawing after 23 days due to revelations regarding her own brushes with the law.

If personnel is policy and Trump’s hiring record is anything to go off of, America’s public servants may be the last barrier holding the specter of an arbitrary, vindictive executive branch at bay. As Ross Douthat put it, illegal or unconstitutional orders will have a harder time getting through the bureaucracy if public servants with a solid ethical compass remain in place.

Most of Trump’s policy decisions will be less dramatic than ordering American intelligence officers to commit torture or Justice Department attorneys to launch political witch hunts, but they will have no less impact. Trump’s pledge to push ahead with the immediate deportations of 3 million “criminal” undocumented immigrants will be a major test of how much federal agencies can maintain their professionalism. Mass deportations of the sort Trump wants open the door wide open to abuses, rights violations and unlawful treatment without strict oversight and a general commitment to ethical behavior on the part of the legal system.

With the president-elect’s respect for our bedrock legal principles an open question, it has never been more important for public servants to remain in place to protect the Constitution they swore to uphold. The temptation to abandon the ship of state is obviously strong, but American institutions must be kept from foundering for the sake of the American people.

It is easy to place blind trust in the power of constitutional checks and curbs on executive overreach, but those checks are only as strong as the people willing to exercise them. If the top echelons of critical agencies are filled with lackeys, the expertise and experience of those serving under them will ultimately decide just how much damage is done.


Samuel Guzman is a policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.