But the real resistance isn’t from high-placed folks who have long facilitated Trump’s imperial machinations, then utter sharp criticisms that are weakened by anonymity. Instead, inside the government it is rank-and-file federal employees, through their labor organizations, who forged tangible opposition to Trump’s excessive behavior.
The federal workforce’s resistance, it should be noted, does not mean sabotaging political priorities. Feds work to fulfill the mission of their agencies, even in an administration that shows them no love.
“From the beginning, this administration has targeted federal employees with a host of harmful policies, threats to their paychecks, offensive rhetoric and flat-out disrespect,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon. “The men and women of the federal workforce proudly serve their country and it is unfortunate that the administration doesn’t value that service.”
The ramifications of their Aug. 25 district court victory over Trump’s attempt to cripple unions through executive orders reach beyond the federal workplace. With a Trump-compliant, Republican-dominated Congress, the judiciary, until elections, is the only vehicle to check a president that increasingly seems out of control.
If, probably when, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh joins the top judicial panel, he will solidify a conservative majority that would be more likely to back the president and throttle resistance efforts.
Although a higher court could overturn the lower court’s ruling, the effort by a broad coalition of federal labor organizations against Trump’s executive orders slashing collective bargaining and union representation provides a strong example of what effective resistance looks like.
“The court victory was huge. It was a big tactical win. It was a huge strategic win for the unions’ resistance to Trump,” said Donald Kettl, a professor and academic director at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs Washington Center. “It created at least a temporary firewall against the conservatives’ efforts to weaken federal unions. It’s surely emboldened those speaking up — sometimes quietly, sometimes not — about what has happened in many federal agencies.”
That’s important because "Congress has been completely erased as a check on executive action,” said Paul C. Light, a New York University public policy professor. “It's up to the courts now, and they are taking charge." Cases involving immigration, the transgender military ban, the voter integrity commission and others are in that group.
But the courts only react to someone’s initiative. The unions reacted forcefully to Trump’s edicts with a victorious united front.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson agreed with them that Trump had to be restrained, ruling that “the President must be deemed to have exceeded his authority.”
This wasn’t the first time.
“This is a pattern with other court rulings about executive overreach,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “I think there's little doubt that you have a president who has been trying to do all kinds of things through executive action, many of them without much regard for what limits there are by law.”
The initial reaction by the Trump administration to the court ruling demonstrated reluctance to immediately follow the judge’s decision. An Aug. 28 statement by the Social Security Administration, for example, indicated the agency, “in consultation with the Department of Justice,” was not immediately following the ruling overturning Trump’s orders. Instead Social Security said it was considering its options.
But the next day, a statement from the Office of Personnel Management's director, Jeff T. H. Pon, backed off a bit with this limited statement: “OPM will fully comply with Judge Jackson’s Order and encourages other agencies to consult with their offices of human resources and general counsel to determine proper compliance measures based on the Order. OPM will work with the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate next steps in this litigation and will provide additional guidance to agencies as appropriate.”
Justice did not respond to a question about the next steps. The conservative Heritage Foundation, which has promoted federal personnel policies favored by the Trump administration, also did not respond to a request for comment about the judge’s decision.
Pointing to Trump’s numerous “steps that would seem to flout the law,” Ben Olinsky, a senior vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, said the decision “is another in a pretty long list of examples where the courts have been used to hold the president accountable in our rule of law society.”
But rule of law means little to a rule and law breaker.