How to Stop ‘Coup of the Bureaucrats’: Cut the Departments

The exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington March 22, 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Susan Walsh/AP

The Washington Post reported Tuesday evening that there is “a growing wave of opposition from the federal workers charged with implementing” President Donald Trump’s agenda.

What Breitbart News called the “coup of the bureaucrats” earlier this week is well under way, with apparent coordination by former Obama administration officials working on the outside:

Less than two weeks into Trump’s administration, federal workers are in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives. Some federal employees have set up social media accounts to anonymously leak word of changes that Trump appointees are trying to make.

The most visible sign of the revolt was acting Attorney General Sally Yates’s refusal to defend President Trump’s executive order, for which she was fired. But other tactics will be more subtle — such as stalling by career officials not easily identified.

The Hill also notes:

Civil servants were always bound to be at odds with the president, who promised to drain the government “swamp.” But now a string of spats with the bureaucracy, culminating Friday with the president’s controversial immigration executive order, has forced that bad blood to become public. After the acting attorney general refused to defend Trump’s order on Monday night, he fired her. Meanwhile, hundreds of State Department diplomats are reportedly signing on to a dissent memo criticizing the policy.

It adds that Sean Spicer warned civil servants during his Monday press briefing: “They should either get with the program or they can go. This is about the safety of America.”

But that may not be enough — in fact, it may encourage further rebellion.

The Post notes: “The resistance is so early, so widespread and so deeply felt that it has officials worrying about paralysis and overt refusals by workers to do their jobs.” It identifies the State Department as one core of the pushback against Trump, so much so “that the American Foreign Service Association on Tuesday sent out an advisory called “What You Need To Know When You Disagree With U.S. Policy.” The memo warns that federal employees can be fired for walking out in protest.

That may be one of the only ways they can be fired. As former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Tevi Troy wrote recently, in recalling challenges George W. Bush faced in confronting the bureaucracy, firing is usually not an option: “Another thing we learned about early on was the lifetime tenure rules–technically known as ‘civil-service protections.’ These rules made it exceedingly difficult to fire even obstinate and uncooperative career officials.” It was easier, he said, to find ways to work around particular employees and offices. He advises: “there are tools wise administrators can use to elevate cooperative officials and move aside obstinate ones. This does not entail making the decisions based on ideology or partisan affiliation. It does mean looking at the willingness of the officials to do the legitimate tasks they are assigned to do.”

There is another option: have Congress cut the departments, or parts of them. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is looking for ways to trim spending, and President Trump has some new spending priorities, like the border wall, infrastructure, and the military.

Both would welcome opportunities to get rid of federal excess. They can target troublesome divisions, or just cut overall budgets and have Cabinet secretaries work out the details. Only the best-performing civil servants will keep their jobs. That might not remove the so-called “resistance” entirely, but it would mean people have to spend more time working.

Perhaps reports of rebellion are overblown. The Post reports that some managers, and some federal departments, report no discontent. And yet: “Career staff members in at least five departments said they are staying in close contact with Obama administration officials to get advice on how to handle Trump initiatives they consider illegal or improper.”

And President Barack Obama has only fueled the fire.

But as he used to say: the president has a phone, and a pen. A red one, perhaps.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.