Energy & Environment

Federal employees step up defiance of Trump

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Government employees are growing increasingly willing to criticize or defy the White House and President Trump’s top appointees. 

A handful of current and former career staffers in the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have openly shredded their superiors within the last several weeks, continuing a trend that has developed throughout the government over the course of Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office. 

The growing opposition in the executive branch comes as the White House’s legislative agenda has stalled in Congress and Trump turns to his Cabinet agencies to change course in several policy areas. It also is emanating from career staffers or political holdovers whose resistance to Trump has, at times, been rooted in deep opposition to the president’s agenda. 


“From our point of view, it’s kind of obvious,” said Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), when asked about staffers’ growing pushback.  

“You have Donald Trump, who ran and said he would drain the swamp, meaning them.”

Trump’s allies have often cast the president as the victim of the “deep state,” an entrenched liberal bureaucracy bent on damaging his agenda through leaks and resistance. 

They argue the deep state extends from agencies such as the EPA, where employees could be angered with Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal, to career service intelligence agency staff who leak damaging information about the president.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Friday even accused special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director now investigating Russia’s involvement in last year’s election, as representing the “deep state at its worse.”

Conservatives are unsurprised by the opposition from federal employees.

Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, pointed to news reports about upset employees, social media campaigns and “civil disobedience” training for staffers looking to push back against the White House. 

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, a contributor to The Hill, attributed the blowback to a host of factors, from the political make-up of civil servants to the use of holdover officials in government offices that are still waiting for the Senate to confirm Trump political appointees.

He said there is also a “real industry now behind recruiting whistleblowers inside the resistance movement,” and creating public outcry about the administration.

“It’s not enough just to be a government employee and resign because of the direction your agency is going,” he said, noting that officials’ concerns are often sincere. “Now you have to do it in a highly public way, out of social pressure and personal motivation.”

Critics of Trump say government employees speaking out should be commended, not punished.

“I think career staff don’t typically speak out publicly unless they feel like there are serious issues and problems going on within the agency,” said Liz Purchia, a former Obama administration EPA spokeswoman.  

“It takes a lot of guts for someone to make the decision to end their government service and to put themselves out there for public scrutiny and comment. … You wouldn’t see that if they didn’t feel like there was a considerable threat to the agency and its missions.”

PEER on Tuesday released an open letter from Elizabeth Southerland, a former top water official at the EPA who said she was retiring because of proposed deep budget cuts to the agency and Administrator Scott Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda. She wrote that “the environmental field is suffering from the temporary triumph of myth over truth.” 

Her broadside came less than a week after David Schnare, a former 34-year EPA veteran and Trump transition official, hit a Pruitt climate science debate plan as “silly” and said he resigned from his post because of Pruitt’s leadership. 

The EPA called Schnare’s statement “false” and “wildly untrue,” and a spokesman questioned whether Southerland was retiring “because of a budget proposal, and not because she’s eligible for her six-figure government pension.”

Several former staffers have launched a group called “Save EPA” to defend the agency. And Ruch said EPA unions and employees invited his group to do “free-speech brown bag presentations” about how to legally fight back against the administration.  

In the Interior Department, the former director of the Office of Policy Analysis, Joel Clement, has filed a whistleblower complaint against Trump administration political appointees such as Secretary Ryan Zinke, saying he was reassigned to the agency’s revenue office because of his former research and advocacy over climate change. 

An agency spokesman said last month that reassignments are “conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the Department’s operations.” Several Senate Democrats have asked for an Office of Inspector General investigation into the complaint. 

Trump himself has been the subject of dissent within his ranks. 

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft said this week that the service “will not break faith” with its transgender members, despite President Trump’s promise to roll back policies allowing transgender service members. 

The acting director of the Drug Enforcement Agency also broke with the president, saying Trump “condoned police misconduct” in his speech to law enforcement on Long Island last week.

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, resigned in July after publicly clashing with Trump on ethical issues. And the president was forced to fire Sally Yates, his acting attorney general, in January, 11 days into her term, when she refused to defend an immigration order.  

Public employee advocates said staffers are still feeling the whiplash brought on by a new administration, even six months after Trump took office in January. 

Even so, Ruch expected employees to power forward and doesn’t expect an “exodus” of retirements, or that as many EPA employees will take agency buyouts as officials expect.

“We’ve been to this rodeo before,” he said. 

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