Where Things Stand: The Ghost Of Power Grabs Past

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SUNRISE, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - 2019/11/26: U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Homecoming rally at the BB&T Center. Trump recently became an officia... SUNRISE, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - 2019/11/26: U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the Florida Homecoming rally at the BB&T Center. Trump recently became an official resident of the state of Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis may not have announced his intent to run for president, but he’s already got some thoughts about what he’d do in the White House. Among them is a plan to decimate the civil service. And it may look familiar.

In the closing days of the Trump administration, a plan to gut the federal bureaucracy in a hypothetical second term took form, with the comic-book sinister name of Schedule F. (You probably don’t remember this, and that’s fine — a lot was happening, and this is one of those important things that was neatly disguised as a very boring thing.) But in October 2020, just two weeks before Election Day, the President signed an executive order that would allow large swaths of the civil service to be designated as at-will employees, exempt from protections that have for decades insulated those workers from the whims of each presidential administration and from political pressure.

And even though Trump lost the election, TPM revealed that, by December, the political appointees in the lame-duck administration were hard at work populating an Excel spreadsheet with the names of workers who would be given Schedule F status. The number of employees who would qualify could have reached into the hundreds of thousands, experts told us — but it never got that far. The initiative seemed to sputter out — perhaps everyone who still cared was too preoccupied with the election-theft effort — and Trump left office with Schedule F largely unimplemented. Biden unwound Trump’s executive order almost immediately.

But it didn’t end there. Trump kept talking about it, promising at a 2021 rally to “pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fire-able by the president of the United States. The Deep State must and will be brought to heel.” And the effort to identify the should-be-fired employees continued to move forward as well. Jonathan Swan, then of Axios and now of the New York Times, reported last year that many familiar Trump administration names are busy drafting up a shadow government of replacement right-wing policy minds for the day when Schedule F is finally implemented. From his report:

No operation of this scale is possible without the machinery to implement it. To that end, Trump has blessed a string of conservative organizations linked to advisers he currently trusts and calls on. Most of these conservative groups host senior figures from the Trump administration on their payroll, including former chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The names are a mix of familiar and new. They include Jeffrey Clark, the controversial lawyer Trump had wanted to install as attorney general in the end days of his presidency. Clark, who advocated a plan to contest the 2020 election results, is now in the crosshairs of the Jan. 6 committee and the FBI. Clark is working at the Center for Renewing America (CRA), the group founded by Russ Vought, the former head of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget.

That brings us up to February 2023, when Ron DeSantis appeared on pundit Mark Levin’s Fox News show, where the two had fun ranting about the government bureaucrats behind pandemic public health measures.

“But it’s hard to remove them with the civil service rules and the union rules and all the rest,” Levin griped.

“Well, there was a proposal that I think a lot of us wanted to see under the prior administration to do a Schedule F,” DeSantis offered. “So anyone who has any policy role is classified as a Schedule F, and they can be removed by the president. The left would litigate that, but I honestly think we would win on that in the Supreme Court.”

(The publication GovExec wrote about that exchange early in March, though I only came across it today through a Substack post by journalist Thor Benson.)

In this case, it’s not that surprising to hear DeSantis toss off a compliment for a policy implemented by the “prior administration,” whose president he may soon run against. Though gutting the supposed “Deep State” is a distinctly Trumpian objective, shrinking the federal government appeals to moneyed, conservative donors of all types, from libertarians like the Koch network to weirdo reactionary tech monarchists who get excited about the Curtis Yarvin/Mencious Moldbug idea to “Retire All Government Employees,” cheekily referred to as “RAGE.” Voters and non-rich party activists, presumably, think it’s fine too: The topic has become a major theme at right-wing gatherings and on Fox News — though not always under the sleep-inducing moniker of Schedule F.

The point here isn’t that there are no differences between DeSantis and Trump. The point is that there is a muscular conservative apparatus that has been hard at work since Trump bailed out of the White House on Jan. 20, 2021 — what the boss Josh Marshall has called “the conservative Deep State.” It’s making lists and spreadsheets and policy proposals, it’s learning from the mistakes of the Trump years, and it sees its opportunity with a 6–3 Supreme Court to reshape American government. It’ll be ready when it next has a chance to act, whether through Trump, DeSantis, or some other person we haven’t yet identified.

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