The latest sign of sabotage, though, has flown largely under the radar: Trump has been quietly dismantling the entire federal civil service — and possibly laying the groundwork for a massive, government-wide purge on his way out the door.
Trump signed a technical-sounding executive order in October that invented a new category of government employees, called “Schedule F.” Career civil servants whose jobs include “policymaking,” the order said, should be newly reclassified under Schedule F — a designation that would strip them of long-held civil service protections and allow them to be fired with little demonstrated cause or recourse.
Including, presumably, for showing insufficient loyalty to Trump.
The current system is by no means perfect. But it needs reasonable management reforms, not more political interference. This order effectively transforms large chunks of the merit-based, expertise-driven, nonpartisan civil service into political appointees who work at the mercy of the president. Already, the U.S. government has more political appointees (4,000) than does any other democracy, a feature that predisposes our government to churn, fickle management and cronyism; Trump’s restructuring would make things even worse, reinstating the sort of patronage-driven, “spoils” system that Congress abolished in the 1880s.
Trump gave the heads of federal agencies 90 days — that is, until Jan. 19, inauguration eve — to review their personnel rosters and decide which roles should be Schedule F. It wasn’t initially clear how many civil servants would get reclassified or whether Trump would still pursue the reorganization once he’d lost reelection.
Then, last week, a memo leaked from the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB director, beating Trump’s deadline, proposed reclassifying 88 percent of his agency’s workforce, or 425 employees, under Schedule F. The Office of Personnel and Management is reportedly fast-tracking its reclassification efforts too.
These are very bad signs. OMB, for example, reaches across nearly every government function, given its involvement in setting budgets and vetting regulations for other agencies. Had Trump won a second term, he presumably would have used this reclassification to clear out distrusted members of the “deep state.” Already Trump has been working to politicize traditionally independent agencies, including by “burrowing” political appointees into senior civil service jobs for which they’re not qualified.
Now that he’s lost, it’s reasonable to wonder if Trump simply plans to fire (and perhaps not replace) as many career experts as possible, leaving Biden with a hollowed-out government unable to perform even its most basic functions.
In other words: a purge.
If that sounds alarmist, recall that Trump has engaged in similar government purges before, of both political appointees and career civil servants whom Congress intended to be shielded from such retaliation. This has usually happened under the guise of “draining the swamp.”
For example, the Economic Research Service — a small, independent statistical agency within the Agriculture Department — has published research on food stamps, climate change, tariffs and other topics that Trump appointees found politically inconvenient. Last year the agency was abruptly relocated a thousand miles away from where it had been; about three-quarters of affected employees decided to quit rather than uproot their families. Certainly one way to silence independent researchers.
Trump has ordered agencies to disband hundreds of technical advisory councils, including the advisory committee to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even without formal firings, Trump officials have spurred a mass exodus of scientists, foreign affairs specialists, immigration officials and other supposed “deep staters” throughout government.
A government employees union has challenged the Schedule F executive order in court, saying it violates statutes regarding civil service protections. Separately, Democratic lawmakers have tried to block it. Presumably, the incoming Biden administration could reverse Trump’s executive order and try to rehire civil servants fired under it.
But in the meantime, a chill is running through the ranks of the civil service. Workers who should be focusing on the country’s health or economic crisis are instead worried about their own job security, and whether it’s still safe to speak truth to power.
Trump is “crashing the car before turning back the keys,” observes Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “Can you simply fix the car? Perhaps, but (1) people will get hurt in the crash, including the public and public servants; (2) you can’t use the car while it is getting fixed; and (3) not clear the car will ever drive the same.”
Which is exactly what Trump wants.