Much of my photographic life has been spent dealing with people in government, from the military to civil service, and around the world in the Foreign Service. During the ’70s and later in the ’90s, my wife worked as a political appointee at what was then the U.S. Information Agency. Through her work I came to know and befriend a number of men and women in many divisions of the federal government. I’d always maintained an admiration and respect for those who take on the work of the American people, and the passion they’ve brought to their work. In contrast, President Ronald Reagan’s famous nine-word indictment — “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help” (one of his favorite applause lines) — always rubbed me the wrong way. It was a little too simple, a little too easy, and never reflected the earnest quality in the people I have known drawn to government service.
The men and women I met in the course of this story — many of whom were forced from their positions and vilified in the process — are the kinds of people one should hope are present in government service, whether representing the country overseas, monitoring our intelligence and counterterrorism resources, or working to establish guidelines for safer living. What I have once again come to realize in making these photographs is the amazing level of talent, élan and expertise that so many in government share, and that we, the public, have now been deprived of. Nothing in this world is perfect, and certainly there are things in Washington that belie reason, yet while there might have been some justification for Donald Trump’s call to “drain the swamp,” what seems to have taken place is less draining than a series of vindictive retributions.
In this time of challenge and upheaval, we should be honored that the U.S. government workforce — which includes many career federal employees who have served multiple administrations, with decades of institutional knowledge — represents us and chooses to make service their life. As one subject remarked, “You might make more money elsewhere, but you’ll never have the satisfaction that you will get working for the people.”
A senior adviser and an assistant associate administrator, Ali was an environmental justice leader at the Environmental Protection Agency. He resigned in 2017.
The former director of national intelligence resigned in 2019.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland
She was the director of science and technology in the Office of Water at the EPA when she resigned in 2017.
John C. Rood
The former undersecretary of defense for policy resigned in 2019 after, he said in a letter, President Trump tasked Defense Secretary Mike Esper to ask for his resignation. Rood had certified in a letter to four congressional committees that Ukraine had moved to decrease corruption and was eligible for U.S. military assistance.
Marie L. Yovanovitch
A longtime career diplomat, Yovanovitch was recalled from her post as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2019. In a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump said Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.” During her testimony in the impeachment hearings, she said she felt threatened by Trump’s statements.
Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, left in 2019 over disagreements about foreign policy regarding Iran, North Korea, Ukraine and other countries.
The senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council quit her post in 2019, shortly before the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. She was Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s supervisor and reported directly to John Bolton.
Michael Atkinson, left, and Steven Linick
As an intelligence inspector general, Atkinson handled the whistleblower complaint regarding Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president. Atkinson was removed from his post by the president in April 2020. Linick, a State Department inspector general, was terminated from his position in May 2020. They were part of a wave of firings by Trump earlier this year.
In May 2020, Fine resigned as the Defense Department’s principal deputy inspector general after Trump removed him as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a board supervising emergency coronavirus aid. Fine had been serving as the acting Pentagon inspector general until Trump replaced him.
The former FBI deputy director was fired in 2018.
He worked at the Department of Homeland Security from 2017 to 2019, serving for part of that time as chief of staff. In a video for a group called Republican Voters Against Trump, he said, “The president offered to pardon U.S. government officials for breaking the law to implement his immigration policy.” At that moment, he said, he decided to quit the administration.
The former acting director of national intelligence was fired in February 2020. Trump was angry after one intelligence official told Congress that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump.
Laura Dodson, Kevin Hunt, Lisa Lauxman, Tom Hertz
They worked at the Department of Agriculture and were among hundreds of researchers affected by the administration’s decision to relocate agencies from D.C. to Kansas City, Mo., in 2019. Some department employees say the move has delayed studies and funding.
William Brockenbrough Taylor Jr.
A career diplomat and military veteran, Taylor became acting ambassador to Ukraine after Trump recalled Marie L. Yovanovitch. Taylor was a key impeachment witness, telling lawmakers about the president’s moves to get Ukraine to investigate his opponents. Taylor returned to the United States in February 2020.
Russell E. Travers
The former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center was fired in March 2020.
The former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York had been pressured to resign and then was fired in June 2020. His office had been investigating Trump allies including Rudy Giuliani.
A career diplomat, the former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quit in 2019.
Yevgeny Vindman, left, and Alexander Vindman
Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman is an active-duty Army judge advocate. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (Ret.) served as a national security aide at the White House until earlier this year. Alexander, who was an expert on Ukraine for the National Security Council, was a pivotal witness at the impeachment hearings.
The former assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy at the Department of Homeland Security resigned in April 2020. Neumann has raised concerns regarding the rise of domestic extremism during the Trump administration.
The former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine quit in 2019 and testified in the impeachment hearings on Giuliani’s theories about Joe Biden and Ukraine.
David Burnett is a photographer of international renown and co-founder of Contact Press Images. Editorial assistant Daniele Seiss contributed to this report.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.