A Veterans Affairs employee is confused about whether he can display a bobblehead doll of President Trump on his desk. A Federal Aviation Administration staffer wonders whether parking a car with a blue “Bernie” bumper sticker is allowed in the agency lot. Another federal worker is demanding that a colleague who called Trump a “70-year-old blond playboy” in the office be disciplined for misconduct.
These are just some of the pointed questions federal employees are asking in the era of Trump, when just about everything seems politicized and civil servants on both sides of the partisan divide want to know just how far they can take their opinions — both for and against the president — in what is not just any ordinary workplace, but the president’s own back yard.
Federal offices are supposed to be politically neutral places, removed from partisanship because the government serves the public. But a month into the new administration, civil servants are more politicized than ever. And they’re seeking guidance in record numbers about what they can and cannot do to express themselves without risking their jobs.
At agencies from the Army to the Environmental Protection Agency, office politics are becoming heated referendums on the new administration, spilling into meetings, hallways, email exchanges and social media.
Their questions are flooding the phone lines and email inbox of the Office of Special Counsel, an obscure, independent federal agency that acts as a watchdog for civil service protections and monitors political activity in the federal workforce.
“Our inbox has exploded,” said Ana Galindo-Marrone, an attorney at the office who’s in charge of monitoring compliance with the Hatch Act, the 1939 law that prohibits civil servants from directly supporting candidates or political parties.
Galindo-Marrone says she’s receiving as many as two dozen queries a day from employees and their managers about what they can say, email and tweet about the new president — both for and against Trump and his policies.
“People are still very emotional about the results of the election,” she said in an interview. “They want to know what’s permissible. I’m hearing from rank-and-file employees asking whether they can wear a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat at the office.” Some managers have told their employees — wrongly — that a hat bearing Trump’s campaign logo is not allowed, she said.
Here’s how the law works: Civil servants are free to opine on the president, his travel ban and other policies. What they can’t do is engage in political activity that works for or against a candidate or a party.
“Every single day, people are talking about it,” said a California-based scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “People are wondering, ‘Can we talk to people? What can we say to the public?’ There’s so much more political activity in government now.”
The conversation at NOAA has ranged from whether the staff can send emails about the “March for Science” planned for April from their government accounts to how they should discuss climate change with members of the public they encounter on the job. The consensus for now, the scientist said: Don’t say you think the administration has lost its way with its skepticism of global warming. Say instead, “The science is telling us this.”
With hiring frozen and the bureaucracy already in Republicans’ crosshairs for being too big, some employees worry about the consequences of overstepping the line.
Not all are asking whether they can criticize Trump, though. At many agencies, they want to express support.
“People are so polarized right now on both sides,” said Brandon Coleman, an addiction therapist at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix who voted for Trump. Coleman said the Department of Veterans Affairs is split down the middle politically right now, with employees either “absolutely ecstatic about Trump or crushed” by Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
A Clinton doll in the shape of a nutcracker with an American flag backdrop sits prominently on Coleman’s desk with the logo, “Is America Ready for This Nutcracker?” He plans to keep it there.
“If we just talked more about our views on political issues, I think it would help,” Coleman said. “The culture here is people are afraid to say their views. But that’s exactly what we should be doing.”
The special counsel’s office is used to reminding government employees in the heat of election season that they should not politick at work. But for the first time she can remember, Galindo-Marrone’s staff is responding to numerous questions from employees at the start of an administration.
Back in 2009 and 2010 when Barack Obama was president, Hatch Act experts got a flurry of questions from employees who wanted to opine on the Affordable Care Act and the tea party. But interest in political expression is much higher now, officials said.
A few high-profile cases have gone public, including that of a Secret Service agent in Denver under investigation for posting numerous anti-Trump comments on Facebook, the most explosive that she would rather go to jail than risk her life for Trump.
Scientists want to know whether they’ll be fired for protesting the new administration’s climate-change policies when they march on the Mall in Washington and in cities across the country on Earth Day. The answer: They won’t, as long as they protest on their own time.
The Navy is also investigating an apparent misstep by a SEAL unit that was seen flying a blue Trump flag from a military convoy of Humvees around Louisville on Jan. 31. The flag was not authorized under a military policy that prohibits active-duty service members from declaring political preferences on duty.
At many agencies, employees are confused about what is appropriate behavior and whether, almost four years from the next presidential election, this is campaign season or not.
Trump inadvertently set off a wave of anxiety on Inauguration Day when he filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to declare his candidacy for reelection in 2020. Officially this means that he is running for office again, in theory a warning to employees to hold their tongues.
But the special counsel’s office weighed in early this month with a ruling that the president, for purposes of the Hatch Act, will not be considered a candidate for office until he publicly declares that he is running for a second term.
When that happens — likely sometime in 2019 — the rules will be stricter. Employees won’t be able to “engage in communications that are directed at the success or failure of his candidacy,” the guidance said.
For now, government employees are free to express opinions at work about government policies and current events, the special counsel’s office said. They can, for example, express support or opposition in the workplace to a Trump policy. But they can’t say Trump should either win reelection or be defeated in 2020.
Federal workers can donate to a political campaign (on their own time), but they can’t solicit money or bundle campaign contributions for a candidate.
They can tweet or post about politics or policy on the clock — as long as Trump is not a candidate and the comments are not made in their official capacity representing the government. A violation of the law can result in a warning letter or disciplinary action from the Office of Special Counsel.
Hatch Act experts and others say that in many cases, overzealous civilian bosses are being too restrictive.
“They can always bring things up at work in a water-cooler-type situation,” said John O’Grady, a career EPA employee who heads a national council of EPA unions based in Chicago, where about 100 employees marched at lunch hour this month to protest the Senate’s confirmation of Scott Pruitt to head the agency.
O’Grady says his colleagues “are being overly cautious about sharing information.” He frequently emails news stories on critiques of the EPA — and pledges from the Trump team to abolish the agency — but says some employees resist sharing them on government servers. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a news story, that’s not a Hatch Act violation.’ ”
Nor does the Hatch Act prevent civil servants from signing a petition while on the government clock calling on the White House to remove a presidential adviser such as Stephen K. Bannon, a question posted to the special counsel’s office by an employee in the Transportation Department.
Today employees are allowed to put a “Make America Great Again’’ logo at the top of their government email address (another question that landed in Galindo-Marrone’s inbox). But once Trump is officially deemed a candidate for reelection, they would be advised to remove the logo, because it would be seen as endorsing Trump for a second term.
So those eager to show their love for Trump with a bobblehead or a “Make America Great Again” hat? Who want to keep promoting Bernie Sanders on a bumper sticker?
Go ahead, that’s all okay, say officials. The biggest consequences, for now, might be a heated debate at the office.