Republicans impatient with anti-Trump civil servants
Republican lawmakers are frustrated with mounting dissent from civil servants over President Trump's policies.
Amid unusually public tension between federal employees and the new administration — including Trump’s firing of the acting attorney general, State Department dissent and frequent leaks to the media — some of Trump's allies in Congress want federal employees to either do their jobs or get out.
“When someone works full time for the government, it should be no surprise to them that they serve at the pleasure of the [president],” Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, told The Hill.
“I’m not interested in politics by an agency employee.”
But others in the GOP are looking to tamp down the tension and go back to business as usual.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is trying to calm a department that’s been roiled by Trump. During his welcome address to State Department employees on Thursday, Tillerson preached unity but didn’t directly mention department opposition to Trump’s executive order on refugees or the mass departure of top officials last week.
“I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome. Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team,” he said.
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) told The Hill that things will ultimately “calm down” once the new administration gets settled in.
“I’m an optimistic person, any time you see a big change, folks are going to react to it when their livelihoods are at stake, she said.
“It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride, and eventually everything will shake out.”
Trump came into office having made few friends among the career employees who staff government agencies in Washington.
His “drain the swamp” mantra and immediate freeze on federal hiring was undoubtedly a tough sell among those who count on the bureaucracy for their livelihoods. Voters in the District of Columbia responded by delivering Democrat Hillary Clinton an 89-point victory over Trump, and she won handily in nearby Maryland and Virginia districts, too.
But the expected clash between Trump and the civil service reached a new level late last week, when Trump signed an executive order freezing the refugee program and banning citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
The secrecy involved in the order’s production, prompted in part by a White House staff worried about media leaks, created confusion in federal agencies trying to implement the order. And on Monday, Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, after she refused to defend his executive order in court.
Along with the pink slip, the White House said Yates had "betrayed" the government in a statement.
That same day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed an internal State Department dissent document that pushes back against Trump’s immigration executive order. Nearly 1,000 diplomats reportedly signed the memo.
“They should either get with the program or they can go,” Spicer said. He followed up on Wednesday by explaining that while all Americans have a right to speak their mind, it’s their job to help the president enact his agenda.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, whose Northern Virginia district includes a significant number of civil servants, told The Hill that concerned federal employees are reaching out to his office.
Dozens of social media accounts purporting to belong to spurned agency staffers have popped up to muddy the administration’s message. The unverified accounts appeared after Trump administration clamped down on multiple agencies’ social media activity in response to the National Park Service retweeting a photo comparison showing that Trump’s inaugural crowd was smaller than former President Obama’s.
This week, a Washington Post report described a civil servant support group in Washington, noting that 180 employees are expected to attend a workshop “where experts will offer advice on workers’ rights and how they can express civil disobedience.”
For all the talk about civil servants and their consciences, though, Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) thinks the issue is simple.
“I don’t think it’s rocket science. All they have to do is do their job,” Flores said.
“If they don’t want to do their jobs, they should get another job.”
GOP lawmakers say that civil service dissent isn’t about free speech.
“We should have more debate in this country. Now that’s a different thing than if you have a job to serve the president in the executive branch and advance his responsibilities, which are to faithfully execute the laws that have been passed,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frequent Trump critic during the campaign, told The Hill.
“We need to rein in these independent agencies and make them accountable to the president again, regardless of who the president is.”
Some Republicans floated questions about whether dissenting employees could be violating the federal Hatch Act by using their official positions for political action. But while there were sporadic calls for punishment, most lawmakers wouldn’t speculate as to what the best form of recourse should be.
“To express political overtones by a government employee I would think violates the Hatch Act, and I would think that anyone who has begun this process should go through a procedure consistent with a violation of the Hatch Act,” Sessions, the Texas lawmaker, said.
“It concerns me, and I think it should be looked at and adjudicated as necessary to the rules of the department.”
Democratic lawmakers that spoke to The Hill were united around the dissenting civil servants, framing their opposition to Trump’s policies as protected speech that’s about less about politics and more about protecting the missions of federal agencies.
“People in civil service are committed to what they believe the mission of their agency is—they have a conscience and they have the ability to speak up,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), a longtime member of Democratic leadership.
“We have free speech in this national and they are, from the depths of their own conscience, talking about what they thing is the right thing.”
When asked by The Hill what she thought of Republican worries that dissent could set a dangerous precedent for employees looking to frustrate a president’s agenda, DeLauro responded, “Generally, this White House worries me.”