Trump is creating a toxic work environment at the US’s largest employer

Lightning over the Jefferson Memorial.
Lightning over the Jefferson Memorial.
Image: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
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Update March 23: Since publication, National Security Chief HR McMaster has been replaced and the US introduced new tariffs against China but eliminated most steel and aluminum tariffs.

The United States may be about to get a new attorney general, a new national security chief, or maybe a new head of veterans affairs. It could be rolling out new tariffs against China, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, or planning to execute drug dealers—or it may not. At time of publishing, no one in Washington, DC, could say for sure.

Donald Trump’s recent embrace of his gut instincts has created a vortex of dashed expectations and disorganization in the White House that is now radiating through the US government. FBI director Andrew McCabe, sacked less than 48 hours before he was due to receive his pension, is only the latest example; former and current federal employees in DC describe a toxic environment at the center of the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, which makes good work impossible and has veteran civil servants “shaking in their boots.”

Trump isn’t here to coddle employees, the White House said in response to questions about the impact of the president’s management style on staff before McCabe was fired. “The president’s goal is to promote an agenda he believes in, not to improve the comfort level of his staff and at the agencies,” said a senior White House official.

But more is at risk than comfort levels. The US government is also the country’s biggest employer, with federal agencies employing over two million people—500,000 more jobs than Walmart. Unpredictability in the White House is having a destabilizing influence throughout those agencies. Democrats, some Republicans, and even former Trump loyalists are upset. “There is no one in charge, and no one to stop it,” said a federal government veteran who advised the Trump transition team, and who voted for Trump in 2016. “It’s fucking disgraceful, but here we are,” he said.

A federal-employee exodus

Trump pledged to gut the ranks of the federal government on the campaign trail in 2016, promising “We will cut so much, your head will spin.” He’s been unable to do that by budget—his first proposal was mostly ignored by Congress, and his own budget director called the president’s second budget a “messaging document”—but he has succeeded in driving out career employees with other means.

The departures of economic advisor Gary Cohn, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and McCabe made headlines, but Trump’s penchant for picking cabinet heads to run the very agencies that they spent years trying to weaken may have had a wider and more insidious effect on government staffing.

Over 23,000 federal employees left during the first nine months of 2017, a 42% increase from departures in the same period during Obama’s first year in office. Last week’s notable resignations include the chief operating officer of the Consumer Finance Protection Board, the 1,600 pro-consumer agency that’s becoming less of a consumer watchdog, and a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration and enforcement, who said his bosses asked him to lie.

The White House is tasked with getting individuals “aligned with the president’s agenda” into the federal government, said the White House official. But House Democrats allege that the White House is going too far, and has planned an ideological purge of the State Department. In a March 15 letter, congressmen Elijah Cummings and Eliot Engel cited emails from a whistleblower that which appear to show high-ranking officials and advisors discussing “cleaning” out people who weren’t considered loyal enough to Trump.

Former and current agency officials also complain that top aides in the White House take care only of themselves, and that the president himself looks out for no one. On February 9, agency officials who have struggled for months to get White House approval to fill hundreds of positions were apoplectic to hear of a string of internal promotions. While desks remained empty at their agencies, dozens of White House presidential assistants, press staff, and lawyers got new titles and a new government pay grade, a thank you for their one year of service.

“That’s a management thing—you have got to take care of your people,” said a former senior official at an agency who has struggled to get hires approved by the White House’s personnel office.

Making America’s government ineffective

Unpredictability and rapid turnover in DC also raises questions about how effective US policy making can be.

As Brookings Institution foreign policy analyst Tarun Chhabra points out, Trump’s whirlwind of impromptu announcements and tweets can make his priorities difficult to discern, and undermine his own officials negotiating power. Some Republicans are so concerned about the administration’s sudden announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs recently, that a handful introduced legislation last week that would force Trump to submit trade tariffs and quotas to the Congress for approval.

As alarm grows about Trump’s policies, there are also questions about whether the government even has enough manpower to execute them. The Department of Commerce and the office of the US Trade Representative are some of the better staffed, and better run parts of the Trump administration, say foreign diplomats and DC lobbyists. But they’ve been handed so many responsibilities in such a scattershot fashion that their effectiveness is being questioned as well.

The USTR was purposely designed to be a small agency within the executive office, and “intended to be lean, mean and nimble,” explains Jennifer Hillman, a former USTR ambassador and professor of law at Georgetown University. It’s an office of about 30 top officials, but it too is not yet fully staffed and is scrambling to renegotiate NAFTA while haggling with other nations about the surprise steel and aluminum tariffs.

The effectiveness of these experts in crafting economic and trade policies is further limited by the fact that the president may not listen to them, anyway. “I don’t think there is much room these days to disagree with the president on trade,” Hillman added.

Other federal agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security, have also become so ideologically driven and uncompromising that they’re in danger of becoming ineffective, say former federal employees.

“As it relates to issues like immigration, terrorism, mass casualty attacks and cyber security, the Trump Administration has been thus far mostly unwilling to consider information or perspectives that are inconsistent with their political viewpoints,” said John Cohen, the former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at Homeland Security, and currently a professor at Rutgers University. “In the world of homeland security, this can be dangerous in that it leads to an incomplete or flawed understanding of the threats facing the nation.”

The administration’s focus on finding and expelling illegal immigrants, rather then hunting down US-born extremists, is particularly troubling, Cohen and other anti-terror experts believe. “In order to achieve its main mission to keep Americans safe, DHS needs the ability to enforce our immigration laws, secure our borders and quickly remove criminal illegal aliens we apprehend,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Walsh said in response to questions about politicization of the agency.

Can the president tolerate disagreement or data that does not support his own ideas? Trump does listen to different points of view, says the White House official. “He invites internal competition over ideas, he pits people against each other sometimes and that’s intentional.” That’s how he managed his business, he said, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable for people in the White House as well. But then “he comes to a decision, and it works. That’s that,” he said.

Thorns in his side

The ugly end result of Trump’s Byzantine court management style and deeply personal decision making are on full display these days. McCabe’s firing just days before his pension went into effect was “vindictive,” Charlie Dent, the Republican congressman from Pennsylvania said Saturday. Last week, secretary of state Rex Tillerson heard of his own firing through a tweet by the president.

Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly delivered the final humiliation to Tillerson on March 16, letting it slip to a small group of reporters that Tillerson was fired while suffering food poisoning and on the toilet, in a briefing that was supposed to be off-the-record, but that people in the room quickly leaked. Trump could not handle Tillerson’s habit of regularly questioning his thinking on foreign policy, alleges Adam Garfinkle, a State Department speechwriter during the George W. Bush presidency, who says he maintains close relationships with officials there.

Tillerson publicly split with the president on multiple issues, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Paris accord to talks with North Korea, the White House official points out. While disagreements with cabinet members are expected, “it is another thing to have them publicly come out and offer viewpoints that routinely” contradict the president, he said. The White House has confirmed that diplomats were cut out of the recent talks with South Korea, he said—but those exclusions were deliberate. “What you mean is people who leak to the press were cut out of a high level negotiation,” he said. “They would have leaked it anyway.”

Meanwhile, McCabe, who was suddenly fired over the weekend after two decades of service believes he is being targeted by Trump because he backed former FBI director James Comey’s claim that Trump pressured him to kill and investigation into Russian meddling in the US election. “The big picture is a tale of what can happen when law enforcement is politicized, public servants are attacked, and people who are supposed to cherish and protect our institutions become instruments for damaging those institutions and people,” McCabe said in a statement.

The proof is in the pudding

Trump’s successes justify his  management style, the White House believes. “We think the proof is in the pudding and the president’s record speaks for itself,” the White House official said. North Korea is coming to the bargaining table because of White House pressure, he said, ISIS is “being decimated in Iraq and Syria,” the administration has shredded hundreds of regulations, and helped to pass a massive tax cut bill.

But “it doesn’t have to be like this,” said a Trump transition team official who worked in a senior position for the administration for nearly a year before departing in frustration. “The chaos comes in where there is politics thrown into every last decision, and all decisions become personal.” Even longtime Trump loyalists don’t know what to expect, he adds, saying, “The people who got him to office, that were willing to execute what he said he was going to do, even those people are shaking in their boots.”

Garfinkle warns that Washington’s federal employees should brace themselves for more upheaval. “Anyone who thinks things are so bad they can’t get worse needs to be taken out of the room and put in a straightjacket,” said Garfinkle. “They can always get worse.”