Gingrich’s Decades-Long Quest To Purge Federal Workforce Gets A New Lease On Life

April 4, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Dating back to his mid-1990s reign in the House of Representatives, and continuing through his failed presidential runs and unsuccessful audition to be Donald Trump’s vice president, Newt Gingrich has led a crusade for rolling back protections for federal workers and eliminating entire agencies. Today, he is pushing from the outside for that same agenda — both as a contributor to Fox News, the President’s favorite source of information, and in private communications with the administration urging officials to conduct a “cleaning” and fire career civil servants suspected of disloyalty.

Whistleblowers report that retaliation against nonpartisan federal workers is on the rise under the Trump administration, with career staffers being pushed out of many different government agencies. As investigations into these purges heat up, and as efforts on Capitol Hill to pass bills making it easier to fire career civil servants intensify, Gingrich is emerging as a key player to watch in the months to come.

Pushing for a purge

When a whistleblower from the State Department handed a trove of documents to Democrats on the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees in March showing efforts by Trump’s political appointees and outside conservatives to push out career staffers who had worked for the Obama administration, Gingrich was in the mix.

In an exchange that labeled career staffers at the State Department “turncoats” and “troublemakers,” and specifically called for the ouster of an Iranian-American employee, the former House speaker forwarded the following email from the hawkish foreign policy adviser David Wurmser to political leaders at the agency:

“Newt: I think a cleaning is in order here. I hear [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson has actually been reasonably good on stuff like this and cleaning house, but there are so many that it boggles the mind.”

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It is illegal to fire or retaliate against career staff because of their political beliefs, race, or country of origin, and the demotion of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh is currently under investigation. Gingrich did not respond to multiple inquiries from TPM about his role in the effort.

But just a couple weeks after the emails surfaced, Gingrich published an op-ed on Fox News promoting a bill that would make such purges of career staffers far easier. In the piece, Gingrich says Congress should be “aggressively fighting” for a bill that would apply reforms implemented last year at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ to all of the federal government — reforms nominally targeted at replacing senior officials guilty of misconduct that have in practice been used to purge rank-and-file employees for minor infractions.

A voice in Trump’s ear

Gingrich was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic senior GOP figures to jump on the Trump Train in 2016, backing the mogul in the primary when few thought he had a serious chance at winning the nomination. Both during the campaign and later, as an adviser during the transition, Gingrich used his proximity to Trump to push his agenda of stripping away federal worker protections.

Just a few weeks before the election, Gingrich told the Washington Post that he was urging Trump to make the issue a priority.

“The quagmire is so bad,” he said. “It’s a very simple watershed: Should the president, through his appointees, have the power to fire people who are corrupt?”

Gingrich’s lobbying continued after Trump took office, pushing the President to consider policies to bust federal worker unions and roll back civil service due process protections, and fanning the flames of the administration’s paranoia about a “deep state” of federal workers bent on thwarting his agenda.

Gingrich told the New York Times just before the inauguration that career staffers’ “no. 1 goal will be to find ways to sabotage each new cabinet secretary as soon as they walk through the door. All those bureaucrats overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. There won’t be any real cooperation until we change federal law so we can fire them.”

Statements like this rang alarm bells across Washington.

“Eliminating civil servants en masse because their alleged political leanings is more evocative of strongman regimes like Turkey,” warned Washingtonian Magazine.

Several political historians, including Richard Greenwald from Fairfield University, have said Gingrich’s plan could return the country to the chaotic, corrupt, mid-1800s system where government jobs were doled out by political patronage and loyalty.

“A system in which the president fires whatever civil servants he will is no system at all,” wrote Greenwald. “We depend on a competent, ethical civil service for the stable functioning of our government and economy—the very foundation of American greatness. We have grown used to official and reliable statistics, forecasts, reports, and investigations to keep us informed, stable, and safe. But this stability and professionalism could be undone by the new administration.”

Decades fighting the “deep state”

Gingrich, a onetime history professor, has long harbored antipathy toward the federal government’s independent, expert class.

As speaker, he successfully abolished the Office of Technology Assessment, which advised Congress on science and technology policy, and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. He slashed the budgets and staff of Congress’ committees. As a cheerleader for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he railed against the U.S. diplomats who warned of its disastrous consequences, and called for politicizing the State Department’s career staff.

“The State Department needs to experience culture shock, a top-to-bottom transformation that will make it a more effective communicator of U.S. values around the world, place it more directly under the control of the president of the United States,” he wrote. He lamented in the same op-ed “the difficulties the secretary of state traditionally has faced in firing [foreign service officers],” and declared that the “theme of loyalty to the president of the United States must resonate throughout the State Department’s transformation.”

Since then, during his unsuccessful bids for the GOP presidential nomination, he has called for scrapping the Congressional Budget Office and the Environmental Protection Agency, and for the mass-firing of federal workers “who are ideologically so far to the left” — a move that would violate federal law.

Throughout his decades in public life, Gingrich’s efforts to eliminate government’s reliance on neutral experts who may push back on his political agenda has been the thread connecting his work as speaker, as a candidate, and then as a formal and informal advisor to Republican presidents.

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