Long-time career frustration with Trump political employees
White House Policy Officials Unequipped to Resolve Matters Coming Across their Desks
POLITICO, By Andrew Restuccia 03/30/2018
One Health and Human Services employee swore off online dating after potential suitors repeatedly got upset that he worked for the Trump administration. An Education Department fellow eagerly returned to teaching after listening to Betsy DeVos bash public schools. And one Environmental Protection Agency official said staffers are distraught at having to personally dismantle regulations they spent years crafting.
This is Donald Trump’s government 14 months into his presidency.
Interviews with nearly three dozen current and recently departed workers across the ideological spectrum and across the federal bureaucracy — from the State Department to the Interior Department — show that Trump’s presidency has fundamentally altered the lives of government workers in ways big and small.
Trump’s frequent attacks on the “deep state” have engendered deep distrust between career and political employees, pushing many long-time civil servants toward the exits and raising the possibility of a government-wide brain drain.
And while some workers, such as Border Patrol agents, are feeling newly empowered under Trump, morale at other agencies is so low that some employees said they were suffering from increased anxiety and depression that has complicated their personal relationships and even led to heavier drinking.
Several career employees said they were keeping their heads down and ignoring possible avenues for promotions because they have little interest in being subjected to the political infighting that has taken hold in many agencies.
“It’s the worst administration and I’ve dealt with all of them from Ronald Reagan all the way forward,” said Jeffrey David Cox, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the country’s largest federal employee union. “The worst with morale of employees. The worst with constantly wanting to take away rights and benefits. And the worst in trying to starve the agencies of resources.”
For Larry Meinert, who spent six years as a senior official at the United States Geological Survey, the last straw came late last year when he was asked to supply a report on updated oil reserve forecasts to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke before the tightly held and market-sensitive information was made public — a request he considered a bridge too far, ethically.
But even before his resignation late last year, there were plenty of other things that got under Meinert’s skin. Administration officials asked his department to supply the topics of each scientific paper it planned to put up for publication up to five years in the future.
“From their point of view, they didn’t want to be surprised by finding out that we were looking at subject ‘X,’” he said. “When I pushed back and said we can’t do that, we don’t know what we’ll be publishing three years from now because we haven’t done the science yet, they’d say, ‘Well what are you hiding?’”
Meinert says he spent much of his time putting together lists of topics that were so general that they were largely meaningless. “My job was to run interference,” he said. “Make the lists as general as they could be. So we’d say, ‘We’re doing a paper about rocks.’ For anyone who knows what’s going on, it’d be insulting, but these guys were like, ‘Great, a paper about rocks. Thanks.’”
Meinert now says he feels relieved to have left the agency, adding that in his view working in the Trump government was perceived as a black mark by some in the scientific community. “The idea that you’re working under the Trump administration is just like you’ve been painted, that you’ve just stuck your foot in a cesspool,” he said.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, which houses USGS, said employee satisfaction at Interior under the Trump Administration averages higher than it did under the Obama Administration. “We just broke the top 10 for best places to work” in the federal government, the spokeswoman said.
For those who remain in the administration, Trump and his team’s unpredictable behavior can be draining.
“My own personal coping mechanism is a lot of denial,” said one Energy Department employee. “That has caused marital stress, since [my spouse] does not appreciate or respect my state of denial. That has caused an issue, although we would not be the only couple in the United States that has struggled with the Trump effect. I’m the frog in the pot that’s boiling along.”
But beyond just emotional exhaustion, career officials said the massive shift in priorities across the government is affecting even seemingly minor projects.
Last year, a team at the National Archives and Records Administration was told by senior NARA officials that it couldn’t put on a program that would have examined the historic context of immigration to the United States because it might attract “unwanted attention” to the Trump administration and put the agency’s funding in jeopardy, according to a NARA employee. “This was a year after we were able to host Black Panthers and a founder of Black Lives Matter,” the employee said. A NARA spokesperson did not comment.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In the liberal city of Washington, where Trump is about as popular as a toothache, some government workers described feeling judged for working under this president.
Career government workers typically stay on the job even after a new president moves into the White House, and civil servants take pride in being non-ideological. But Trump’s presidency has been so divisive that long-time career employees and even some Trump appointees often get an earful from friends and relatives.
“There is a palpable feeling of disgust for people working for the administration around town,” said the HHS employee.
“I’ve quit going on dates that I meet on Hinge or the other dating apps because the four that I have been on the past month have all gotten upset I ‘work for Trump,’” the person added.
The HHS employee, and others interviewed by POLITICO, said they were hesitant to seek promotions because they didn’t want to work closely with Trump appointees they view as unqualified and deeply partisan.
After Interior Secretary Zinke said he would reassign up to 50 senior executive staff members, employees further down the chain realized that seeking a promotion could put them in the crosshairs for reassignments that seemed to them based more on politics and less on their skill sets or job requirements.
“With those jobs, there was always a possibility that you would have to relocate,” an Interior Department staffer said. “But the idea that you’ll be arbitrarily relocated because the administration thinks you can’t be trusted, that’s unheard of. So it’s really stagnated, the number of people who apply for those jobs.”
The Interior Department spokeswoman denied there was any reduction of interest in senior positions, saying Interior bureaus "have successfully detailed several willing [career staff] into career SES positions in the last year."
Meanwhile, morale at the State Department, the Education Department and the EPA has reached new lows, according to multiple administration officials, who said former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Education Secretary DeVos and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are disliked by many career staffers.
One recently departed career official who worked on international affairs described the helplessness of representing the U.S. when even the most fundamental policies could change at any moment. Ahead of Trump’s speech in Warsaw last summer, Polish officials looked for reassurance that the president would defend Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the alliance’s commitment to mutual defense. Trump had declined to do so just a couple of months earlier.
In conversations with Polish officials, “I could not say the president was going to support the NATO commitments to defend Poland,” the former official said. “That’s insane.” (Trump did ultimately endorse Article 5 in his Poland speech in July).
At the State Department, the mood is so sour that even veteran career officials regularly consider leaving.
“There are days I want to leave and work for someone who respects me and appreciates my skills and expertise. I’m worried people years from now will somehow associate me with the very worst of this administration,” one State Department official said. “Then there are days where I tell myself that this too shall pass and public service is more important now than ever. I don’t want to contribute to the weakening of our institutions by walking away.”
In other corners of the government, federal employees say they haven’t experienced the low morale and deep frustration facing their colleagues.
One former senior Food and Drug Administration official said her experience working for the Trump administration is in “sharp contrast to colleagues that I’ve worked with at other agencies who have just been decimated by this administration,” crediting FDA chief Scott Gottlieb for creating a stable environment and shielding employees from the chaos of the White House.
Several HHS employees said Alex Azar, the department’s newly confirmed leader, was improving life at the agency.
“HHS has had four different Secretaries over the past twelve months, which has certainly frustrated the ‘regular order’ decision-making process. And you’re also dealing with an uncoordinated and largely unaccountable set of White House health policy officials who quite often appear unequipped to resolve matters coming across their desks,” said a former HHS official. “For everyone else working downstream, it’s so much easier to embrace the dysfunction than to fight it.”
The former official added, “There is a lot of hope at HHS that Secretary Azar will be able to restore a more routine process, or at least break the current one.”
And at the Defense Department, many employees have praised James Mattis’ leadership.
“Though it took longer than usual, the department was filled with some very good, experienced people in political positions. Doesn’t mean I agree with them on everything, but they’re not nut jobs,” said one civilian employee at the department.
Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents and other immigration hardliners in the government are delighted by Trump.
“We’re walking on air,” said one U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee. “We’re actually getting someone who supports our mission. We’re getting the respect we deserve for all the crap we have to deal with.”
Trump stressed the importance of border security during his campaign and won the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council, a union for agents.
“With this administration, we feel as though we have that ability to make our voice heard and someone's actually paying attention to it,” said Terence Shigg, president of a Border Patrol local union in the San Diego area.
Shigg is stationed at a Border Patrol checkpoint 50 miles north of San Diego when he’s not performing union duties. At the checkpoint — a controversial space in immigrant-friendly California — he noticed a change in the way the public interacts with him.
“Whereas before, working on the highways, waving traffic, you generally expect to get flipped off or yelled at at least once a shift,” he said. “Now it’s kind of the opposite. You get usually one thumbs up, or a honk, or a ‘good job’ every shift.”
Civil servants’ exasperation lessened somewhat as political appointees grew more accustomed to leading their agencies. But even after more than a year, some career government workers say their frustrations with Trump’s team are lingering.
A teacher who spent a year at the Education Department in a fellowship that spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations said the agency’s fellows initially had to “work hard” to gain DeVos’ trust.
“We understood the strange relationship that Secretary DeVos would have with educators given her background. We saw ourselves, maybe arrogantly, as important connectors to help her,” the teacher said. “Much of that time was spent demonstrating to the secretary and political appointees the value of having teachers on staff … to help connect them with the field.”
DeVos’ message that public schools in America are failing pushed the teacher to return to working in a public school in New York state when the fellowship ended.
“I wanted to work in a school again. I wanted to work in a public school in particular and I wanted to work in a place that had a record of success,” the former Education Department fellow added. “Part of a narrative that was coming from this administration is that public schools are failing and that things haven’t gotten better in 50 years. And I disagree with that, strongly.”
Asked for comment, the Education Department’s press office referred POLITICO to Jason Gray, a career official and the agency’s chief information officer, who said his experience has been positive and DeVos has been supportive of developing internal expertise. Gray said the notion that the Trump administration has been toxic for career officials is “overblown” and it doesn’t gel with what he has seen at the Education Department.
Meanwhile, Pruitt’s push to cut staff and undo Obama’s environmental regulations has pushed morale at the agency down to unprecedented levels, according to long-time career employees.
“Morale has been terrible for years and has only gotten worse, and this on top of everything else. You’ve got people biding their time until retirement, you’ve got people biding their time toward public service loan forgiveness, but folks are looking for an exit,” said one EPA staffer.
The staffer said he has applied for other jobs and says others have too. “Folks still there are doing their best to get out,” he said. “The writing’s on the wall if they’re trying to take us down to less than 10,000.”
EPA’s staffing has fallen by about 1,400 people under the Trump administration and now stands at 14,056. Trump, in his budget request, proposed eliminating thousands more employees, but Congress in a spending bill last week kept EPA spending and staffing about level.
The staffer said employees are also discouraged by a lack of communication at the agency.
“We hear stuff from the press faster than we hear it from our own management,” he said.
A second EPA official said employees have been demoralized by what they see as Pruitt’s eagerness to roll back as many environmental regulations as possible. They are watching rules they worked on unravel, and in many cases, are the ones doing the unraveling.
Even at the agency with perhaps the most Trump supporters, the Department of Homeland Security, some career officials have cooled on the president and his political appointees.
At the department’s headquarters, some civil servants blanched when the president rolled out his first travel ban executive order on Jan. 27, just days after he took office.
The policy, which temporarily barred travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations and suspended the refugee resettlement program, caught senior department officials by surprise and sparked confusion and distress at airports worldwide, according to media reports and an internal watchdog report issued a year later.
“A huge amount of effort with pretty senior people was devoted to coming up with an implementation plan,” said one DHS official who watched the chaos unfold. “I think normally some of that would be planned before an order comes out rather than after.”
The botched travel ban rollout signaled a broader willingness within the administration to bypass career civil servants to execute the president’s agenda, the official said.
“There’s no systematic effort to consult with the stakeholders who are in charge of doing the stuff,” the official said. “I think it’s demoralizing to the career professionals who have expertise and are not being consulted.”
In response, DHS Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement, “DHS has continuously worked to ensure that all our employees have needed resources, public support and honest gratitude for their sacrifices and successes in executing the DHS Mission.”
She added, “During the past year, DHS was ranked as the ‘most improved’ large agency, something that we extremely proud of as it represents positive trend that began years ago. We will continue to prioritize engagement and communication with the DHS employees who work tirelessly to secure our nation and keep Americans safe.”
At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a 19,000-person component within DHS that focuses on processing immigration paperwork, Trump has also been received unenthusiastically by some employees.
Under the leadership of Director Francis Cissna, the agency has adopted a greater public focus on the prevention of fraud and abuse within the immigration system. At the same time, it’s moved away from the idea of immigrants as customers to be provided a service.
In that vein, Cissna turned heads internally when he rolled out a reworked mission statement in February and dropped language about "America's promise as a nation of immigrants.”
“That has people concerned,” said Michael Knowles, president of a USCIS worker union affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees. “For years, regardless of what administration there was — whether it was Republican or Democratic — the narrative around our agency is, ‘We are a nation of immigrants.’”
A DHS official more closely aligned with the Obama administration found himself sidelined when Trump took office. Still, he recognizes any party change in the White House inevitably upends the dynamic in federal government.
“I’ll be OK,” the official said. “I come home at the end of the day and I walk my dog. I have a glass of wine and I ask my wife how her day was.”
Ben Lefebvre, Caitlin Emma, Ted Hesson, Rachana Pradhan, Emily Holden, Nahal Toosi, Lorraine Woellert, Aaron Lorenzo, Sarah Karlin-Smith, Eric Wolff, Victoria Guida, Tanya Snyder, Stephanie Beasley, Wesley Morgan and Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report.