Could Big Government revolt against Trump?

  • 27 January 2017
  • NormanL
Could Big Government revolt against Trump?

After eight years in which we were told that dissent aimed at the incumbent president was racist (or worse), standing up to the president has become fashionable once again. We see it in small ways -- the alternative social media accounts of federal agencies like the Forest Service, USDA, and EPA, all bravely taking to the barricades in the name of science/truth/facts/whatever. But this could be a sign of a larger rebellion in the making:

There were indications of bureaucratic resistance to the legitimately elected president during the transition period. In one Politico piece, career officials at HHS were disturbingly candid about their disdain for President-elect Trump, while at the same time protecting themselves in the veil of anonymity. One told reporter Dan Diamond that “it’s tough from the career staff side,” before asking, “Do you stay and try and be the internal saboteur?” Another called the Trump win “obviously shocking and upsetting,” a third “soul crushing.” One of the staffers quoted paid lip service to the fact that they “respect the need to have a peaceful transition of power,” but added that “it’s just frustrating to calmly hand over the keys when you know they’ll wreck the car.” Politico’s Blake Hounsell quoted one anonymous, presumably career, official lamenting the appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at the State Department: “I’ve been resisting the urge to drink since 7 a.m., when I read the news.”

Diamond noted in his story that the older, more senior career HHS officials he spoke to were “more sanguine,” having seen transitions in the past. It’s possible, therefore, to say that the less judicious individuals were just venting and will come into line come the inauguration. But it’s also possible that these younger staffers may represent the new face of a more partisan career bureaucracy. First, the overtness of the career officials cited was alarming, especially given how careful they typically are. Second, Diamond points out that there are 1,000 HHS officials who “can trace their jobs back to Obamacare.” Presumably, these individuals will be most resistant to repealing and replacing Obamacare, the stated policy of the new president. And finally, the open speculation from a career official, even if anonymous, about serving as an “internal saboteur” should raise alarm bells among not only incoming political officials but also career employees, whose jobs are directly tied to their ability to work with, and generate the trust of, political appointees.

Another worrisome portent was open resistance to what should have been viewed as routine requests. Trump’s transition team posed a list of questions to different departments regarding the agencies’ activities in recent years. Such questions are standard operating procedure, and transition teams of both parties present them to agencies during transition as a matter of course. As part of this process, the Trump team asked which career staffers at EPA and the Department of Energy were involved in climate-change policy. These questions made their way into the press and led to hyperbolic headlines such as “Trump team’s demands fuel fear of Energy Department ‘witch hunt.’”

Something similar happened at the State Department, where a request to disclose teams working on gender issues led to similar hysterical headline. The State Department agreed to the request, only because the query asked for position titles, not names, of those involved. The Energy Department, however, actually refused to supply the names of the career officials involved in such activities. This decision was presumably made by political, not career, officials, and it called into question President Obama’s pledge of his full cooperation with the transition. It also sent a powerful message to the career officials: Their resistance to legitimate requests would be largely ignored, and possibly lauded, by the mainstream media.

One other potential difference between previous political-career interactions and the current one is the level of controversy regarding the issues Trump highlighted in his campaign. Candidate Trump ran on repealing Obamacare, combating political correctness, and law and order. Many career officials in these agencies have seen their mission in opposite terms—they were tasked with promoting the Affordable Care Act, maintaining speech regimes on campus, and creating new guidance on how to monitor allegations of racism by police officers. This discrepancy, coupled with then President-elect Trump’s calls to initiate a hiring freeze for federal workers, led to a Washington Post report about federal agencies rushing to fill any possible vacancies before the January 20th turnover. Presumably these new hires would not only get in before a hiring freeze, but also share the Obama administration’s perspective on these hot-button issues.

So it is fair to assume that the mistrust between politicals and careers will be higher in this new administration than in previous administrations. It certainly seems possible that the intransigence of the career officials could be more significant to efforts of the incoming administration than in previous changes of power. If so, the Trump team, already convinced of the hostility of the establishment, may be even warier than a typical GOP political team.

It's not fated that a rebellion will occur. Trump's team can follow a number of strategies that keep bureaucrats happy, while also advancing the president's agenda (even if the bureaucracy, broady speaking, finds that agenda horrible).

But if we take the outposts of dissent on social media as a harbinger of things to come, the possibility exists that the permanent government -- the bureucracy, or "the swamp," if you prefer -- could delay, obstruct, or outright kill the president's policies.

We will be watching this closely.