President Trump’s ascendancy has reverberated across a workforce of 2.1 million civil servants, upending their sense of mission or empowering it, depending on where they sit.
The career employees, who form the backbone of the federal bureaucracy, have become targets of the president’s campaign vow to “drain the swamp,” and they heard White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon pledge the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Where Trump is putting resources and priorities, many employees describe a sense of validation and optimism. Where he is dismissive of their mission and their value as public servants, they are anxious, discouraged and sometimes hostile. And in offices where the White House envisions severe budget cuts and has set in motion buyouts, early-retirement offers and possible layoffs, civil servants are ill at ease, their futures uncertain.
Amid this upheaval, employees have kept the government humming. Social Security checks are still going out, and the Labor Department is still enforcing wage and hourly pay laws. But in some offices, employees say there is little direction from above and few initiatives underway.
After just six months, it is too early to gauge the effect of the Trump administration’s zeal to shrink the size and reach of government. Congress controls not only spending, but also in many cases whether the White House actually can eliminate agencies and programs.
But this much seems clear: Across the far-flung bureaucracy, employees are either on edge or waiting with high expectations for the changes Trump promised, with few, it seems, weighing in at neutral.
For Thomas Decker, who works at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the change has been dramatic and welcome.
“Right now, we’re enforcing immigration laws,” said Decker, who is director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE’s operations in the New York area. “The morale is up. We’re able to do what we were hired to do, which is making the homeland safe.”
For the first time in years, he feels his agency is really doing the job, a reflection of the priority the president has put on cracking down on illegal immigration. And he feels the future is secure for ICE’s 19,330 employees.
Arrests in his region were up 31 percent from January through the end of April over the same period in 2016, thanks to Trump’s sweeping new immigration policies instructing ICE agents to move aggressively to take people into custody and rolling back Obama-era rules that prioritized the arrest of serious criminals.
Decker, who rose over the course of his career from interviewing immigrants applying for citizenship to supervising 340 agents, is used to his job being a center of public debate. Now, though, it has become more entwined with local politics in the Democratic-run city where he is based. New York has limited the types of felonies that require the police to hold undocumented immigrants in local jails to give ICE agents time to pick them up for deportation.
“I would say that before [under President Barack Obama], there was a working relationship” with New York, Decker said. “Probably the difference now is the politics with the mayor’s office.”
Charles Doolittle’s experience has been just the opposite.
Doolittle was a rising star at the Education Department, hired four years ago through a prestigious fellowship for aspiring public servants. The self-described policy wonk was a good fit for the agency’s policy shop, where he focused on teacher and principal issues and helping states carry out a sweeping federal law that gives them a larger role in deciding how to improve troubled schools.
Doolittle, 28, loved the work, putting in 60 to 70 hours some weeks.
“This was my dream job,” he said.
But he did not like what he saw in Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Doolittle considered her inexperienced, disagreed with the priority she put on private school alternatives to public education and feared that she would erode the federal role in education.
His tipping point came in May after the release of the White House budget proposal, which would cut 13.5 percent from the Education Department. Watching DeVos testify before senators on C-SPAN, Doolittle was aghast at her refusal to definitively say whether she would block federal funding for private schools that discriminate against LGBT and African American students and others from marginalized populations.
“I just found it absolutely repugnant and inexcusable,” Doolittle said. “We’re a civil rights agency. That’s our role, if nothing else.”
So he quit. His last day was June 30.
“A lot of people like me tried to hold on for the first six months,” he said. “I went from being so proud to say where I worked to avoiding the subject. . . . I could no longer stay there in good faith without considering myself part of the problem.
At the Commerce Department, a trade expert at the small International Trade Administration is anxious about the future. Buyouts are looming, and if not enough employees take them, layoffs could be next, she said.
This employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized by her agency to talk to a reporter, said she loves working in government. But Secretary Wilbur Ross is drawing up plans to get rid of 10 percent of the agency’s 90 field offices and staffers.
“Possibly my job will be eliminated,” she said. “What’s going to happen moving forward, I don’t know. I’m depressed.”
The employee said she would prefer to be laid off than to take a buyout, because a severance package would be more generous. So she is waiting nervously to see what transpires and regrets that her job does not entail enforcing trade practices, since that is a priority for the new administration.
Other changes are also worrying her. Her boss is filling in for someone who is filling in for someone else whose boss is acting in a senior role because the department has just a handful of political appointees.
“I have no supervisor,” she said. “I’m having trouble keeping myself motivated. I’m normally an extremely productive person, and yet I can’t get anything done.”
This month, she went shopping in the middle of a weekday. Frequently, she walks around the Commerce headquarters building to burn off stress, she said.
Brandon Coleman, an addiction therapist who counsels veterans at risk of suicide for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Prescott, Ariz., had lost trust in VA.
But when Trump started making campaign promises to clean up the agency, Coleman paid attention. The president’s appointment of David Shulkin, who had run the veterans’ health program under Obama, to lead the agency has Coleman feeling a lot more upbeat about his job.
He has watched Shulkin make the cable news rounds to press Congress for legislation to make it easier for him to fire bad employees, a bill the president signed in June. Then there was the executive order creating a division within VA to protect whistleblowers.
Coleman was suspended for 15 months on what were found to be unsubstantiated charges of assault. These followed his decision to go public with concerns that large numbers of at-risk veterans were walking out of the emergency room at the Phoenix VA Medical Center without proper monitoring.
Coleman, a decorated Marine Corps veteran, was reinstated to an outpatient clinic last year. But he continued to call out the agency’s culture, in which he says rule-breakers rarely are punished, three years after a scandal over falsified records for medical appointments.
Now Coleman sees sign of progress in the fight to expand veterans’ access to private doctors and improve mental-health services.
He shook hands with Shulkin in the Oval Office when Trump signed the executive order. The new secretary promised a meeting on protecting whistleblowers. Coleman is still waiting.
“I was not a big fan of Shulkin,” Coleman said. “But he’s trying to bring transparency to an agency that had none. I think we have a secretary that has a backbone.”