The problem for Trump appointees

When you work in the private sector (or when you were a contestant on The Apprentice), you have to do what your boss says. There are limits of course; if your boss asks you to break the law, you have legal recourse to disobey him. But even here there are risks to your continued employment (hence the importance of protections for whistleblowers).

In theory, the public sector in a democracy is different. Those who are appointed to top positions by the president and confirmed by Congress are in the challenging position of having multiple bosses to whom they are responsible. First of course, they are responsible to the president who appointed them. The President can ask for their resignation at any time (in most positions) as Trump did this past week with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Or the President can make an appointee’s life miserable as Trump did for two years with Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Nixon's former White House counsel: Trump DOJ was 'Nixon on stilts and steroids' Garland sparks anger with willingness to side with Trump MORE.

But Cabinet officials and other high-level appointees have other bosses as well. They are confirmed by the Senate, and their responsibilities are outlined in laws passed by Congress. Congress can grill them with oversight questions as they did this week with Attorney General William Barr. Congress also controls the budgets of federal agencies, and cabinet secretaries must be solicitous of their budget committees in order to have their priorities funded.


Finally, there are many more laws that apply to the actions of high level government officials than to their counterparts in the private sector. If Congress wrote a law saying that you must issue a report, then your department can be sued for not issuing the report. Cabinet secretaries can only regulate or deregulate as allowed by law. Courts enforce these requirements, so one could view the third branch of government also as a boss to which agency officials are responsible.

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE ran for president as an outsider touting his business experience as a reason he could make government work better. But government is not a business. And the President’s lack of experience has had consequences for his agenda.

The President has been running through appointees at a record pace. Without a stable set of aides, it’s not a coincidence that many of his initiatives have been blocked. There is no wall. Immigration continues at a record pace. And his regulatory rollbacks continually get stopped by the courts.

Why the turnover at the highest levels of the Trump Administration? Trump pressures his high-level appointees for quick results. But those appointees must follow the law and be mindful of their responsibility to Congress. This puts them in a bind. They could attempt to satisfy the President rather than Congress and the law and end up like Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOklahoma AG resigns following news of divorce, alleged affair Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues Scientific integrity, or more hot air? MORE. Or they can tell the President that the law requires moving slowly in some areas and end up like Jim Mattis. Or they could try to walk the line between these two and end up like Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenLeft-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' House Republican condemns anti-Trump celebrities during impeachment hearing MORE.

This in turn leaves the president with a choice. 

He could do what presidents before him have done and work with Congress to make changes to laws that he would like to see changed, and instruct his subordinates to move cautiously in those areas where the law constrains his preferred policies. Or he could continue cycling through deputies until he finds those willing to ignore Congress and the courts, and who can last long enough without paying the price for doing so. 

His record clearly suggests that he prefers the second of these approaches. Unfortunately, this is also the approach that presents the most long term danger to our democratic institutions.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.