A trove of e-mails obtained by House Democrats reveal efforts by top State Department officials — working hand in hand with the White House, outside conservatives and right-wing media — to sideline and demote career civil servants who are seen as disloyal to President Trump.
The report on the emails set off alarm bells across Washington, D.C. and prompted Democrats on the House Oversight Committee to demand that the State Department hand over records of internal communications on the issue. Department officials have reportedly labeled certain career staffers “troublemaker,” “turncoat” and “Obama/Clinton loyalist” because of their work for past administrations.
But independent watchdog groups tracking the issue tell TPM the problem is not confined to the State Department, citing similar acts of retaliation against career staffers throughout the government.
“I think we’re seeing a pattern across a number of agencies,” Nick Schwellenbach, the Director of Investigations at the Project On Government Oversight, told TPM. “Top political leadership is working to root out people they view as insufficiently loyal to Trump’s agenda. It’s extremely troubling, because federal government employees’ loyalty should be to the Constitution, not to the political masters of the moment.”
Skirting the laws
Under federal laws dating back to the late 1800s, government workers can only be hired or fired based on their merit and work performance. It’s illegal to make those decisions based on political affiliations or patronage. Additional laws passed in the wake of Watergate and President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre strengthened those protections, mandating that supervisors show cause for firing any federal worker and setting up the Merit Systems Protection Board for employees to appeal their cases.
While several past administrations have still found ways to push out, reassign, or outright fire employees for political reasons, watchdog committees on Capitol Hill and outside good-government groups say the problem has escalated significantly under President Trump.
The Interior Department moved last year to reassign dozens of its longtime career staff, forcing some to either take jobs on the other side of the country or resign. One of those targeted for reassignment was Joel Clement, who was moved out of his job as director of the Office of Policy Analysis into an unrelated post in the accounting office. Clement said he believed the move happened in retaliation for his speaking out about the risks of climate change.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) director Mick Mulvaney is currently attempting to bring more political appointees into the agency. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who before entering the Senate helped create the CFPB, has warned that adding political appointees “could violate civil service laws designed to protect such employees from undue political pressure and discrimination.”
And State Department officials recently tried to reassign a career staffer after her Iranian last name and her work under the Obama administration were flagged by the likes of Breitbart and Newt Gingrich, according to emails given by a whistleblower to Democrats on the House Oversight Committee.
“I think a cleaning is in order here,” wrote David Wurmser, in a message Gingrich forwarded to State Department officials.
Lawmakers called the e-mails “extremely disturbing.”
“Over the past year, we have heard many reports of political attacks on career employees at the State Department, but we had not seen evidence of how extensive, blunt, and inappropriate these attacks were until now,” said Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees.
The lawmakers are demanding the Trump appointees turn over “documents regarding any reassignment or proposed reassignment of career or civil service employees at the Department, including any based on alleged personal political beliefs and prior service with previous Administrations.” But without cooperation from their Republican counterparts, they are unable to subpoena the documents, if the State Department stonewalls them.
Changing the laws and their arbiters
Employees who feel they have faced unfair retaliation can appeal their cases to the Merit Systems Protection Board, but the board currently has just one member and is unable to hear cases until more are confirmed. As of the end of 2017, the board had the longest backlog of cases in its history, topping more than 750. Two men nominated by President Trump to serve on the board are currently awaiting Senate confirmation.
With this key resource for federal workers unavailable, President Trump and his allies in Congress are openly calling for laws to roll back protections for government employees. Lawmakers and advocates say such measures could make it much easier for Trump administration appointees to target career staffers for political reasons.
In his first State of the Union speech in January, Trump asked Congress “to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
Whistleblower advocates like Schwellenbach say they fear that will mean more laws like the one passed in 2017 to overhaul the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, which reports have found led to a mass purge of rank-and-file employees for minor infractions.
“The VA is a petri dish,” Schwellenbach said. “The law there is really being used in ways not intended by Congress. It is disproportionately going after lower-level people instead of holding senior officials accountable for wrongdoing in the department.”
A slew of bills recently introduced by House Republicans would implement the weakened employee protections now in place at the VA and other government agencies.
The Labor Department Accountability Act and Education Department Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act replicate the VA’s legislative language almost exactly, giving the secretaries at those agencies more authority to swiftly suspend, involuntarily reassign, demote or remove employees.
The Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency (PAGE) Act would classify all new federal hires as “at-will” employees, meaning they could be “removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause or no cause at all.”
And the Modern Employment Reform, Improvement, and Transformation (MERIT) would allow Cabinet secretaries to fire any employee, provided they give a notice in writing, and would limit the employee’s ability to appeal the case to the MSPB.