Trump may soon be starting a witch hunt of his own

Trump may soon be starting a witch hunt of his own
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE has often called the many investigations into his campaign and presidency “witch hunts.” Now it appears he may be starting a witch hunt of his own. 

It’s been reported that the head of the Office of Presidential Personnel, Johnnie McEntee, has been tasked to purge “bad people” who are insufficiently loyal to the president. This suggests the focus is on disloyalty among Trump’s own political appointees.

Later it seemed White House spokesman Hogan Gidley upped the ante to suggest they would be looking at career civil servants as well.

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 “I mean, the federal government is massive, with millions of people — and there are a lot people out there taking action against this president and when we find them we will take appropriate action,” Gidley said. 

The aim of both initiatives seems to be to take more or better political control of the government – not to make government work better.

“When I oversaw the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the first Bush administration, we never looked to seize control of government primarily for political reasons.

Surely any president has the authority to remove his political appointees at will. Political appointees are expected to support and implement the policies of the president and also to help develop those policies. In this administration, where the policymaking process is often as short as a tweet, appointees can be caught unaware or might have advised differently. 

Rather than look for a few dissidents among its appointees, the administration (and the Republican-controlled Senate) should be looking for reinforcements – speeding up the process to get more Senate-confirmed appointees into place and replacing the number of acting officials with Senate-confirmed appointees. Today, of 744 key Senate-confirmed positions, 64 are awaiting confirmation and 167 do not even have a nominee announced.

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The attack on the career bureaucracy is nothing new. It’s reminiscent of the Nixon-era Malek Manual that came complete with techniques for dealing with suspected disloyal career civil servants. 

Dealing with the bureaucracy is a quadrennial challenge for presidents — especially those who follow a president of the opposite party. The incoming administration is usually suspicious of career employees who served closely with the previous administration officials. This seems a particular concern for Republicans. 

But, as new political appointees populate the new government, there is what political scientist James Pfiffner has identified as a period of accommodation during which political appointees and career officials get to know each other and develop ways of working together. What’s unusual here is that we’re in the fourth year of this administration and these accommodations have yet to occur. Instead, we have continuing allegations of a “deep state.”

The administration’s plans for loyalty tests for civil servants risk running counter to our concept of civil service. Two historic acts of Congress —the Pendleton Act of 1883 and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 — codified the concept of a professional nonpolitical career civil service serving both Republican and Democratic administrations, protected from political retaliation and prohibited from participating in certain political activities. 

Tests of political loyalty for civil servants are neither appropriate nor necessary if both sides — political leaders and career officials — respect the essential concept of a professional civil service.

For political leaders, this means providing policy leadership and effective management of the professional staff of departments and agencies. This includes respecting the political/professional boundaries and accepting the positive potential of dissent and disagreement.

For career civil servants the American Society for Public Administration code of ethics contains four relevant guidelines: Provide accurate, honest, comprehensive and timely information and advice to elected and appointed officials; advance professional excellence by strengthening personal capabilities to act competently and ethically and encourage the professional development of others; respect and support government constitutions and laws; and adhere to the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service. 

It takes both strong political leadership and experienced professional expertise to run a government. Ultimately, political loyalty tests don’t work. They create more anxiety among both political appointees and career officials, distracting them from good governance.

It’s difficult to see how the administration’s newest witch hunt promotes the cause of effective, responsive government. Instead, it’s likely to feed an environment of suspicion and distrust, driving a bigger wedge between political leadership and the bureaucracy it depends on to implement its policies. 

Douglas A. Brook is a visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He served as acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the George H.W. Bush administration.