Among the many things the first year of the Trump presidency has given us is a new genre of op-ed. What might be called the resignation-confessional is headlined with some variation of, “I was a career [x], I resigned because of Trump’s [actions on y].” The article goes on to detail how the president has undermined the role of the author’s federal agency or forced the author into compromising positions and how he is now forced to do something he never thought he would do, resign. It lands like a bombshell within DC’s policy community, earning tons of clicks, TV hits for the author, and an avalanche of social media shares with heartfelt testimonials endorsing the author’s character and integrity and lamenting that the Trump era has come to this. And with that, a new fighter enters the #resistance, cobbling together follow-up commentary and consulting gigs to stay afloat in the struggle against Trump and professionally relevant until his successor takes over.
The genre persists both because the steady stream of departing career professionals continues to provide it fodder, and because these pieces provide firsthand accounts of perhaps the defining policy legacy of the President’s first year in office: the Trump team’s broad assault on the institutions he leads in pursuit of an empowered White House and a broad deregulatory agenda. Indeed, if you look very closely at what often seems to be the chaos of the Trump presidency, a deliberate strategy to lead the executive branch by undermining it comes into focus. In a jarring repudiation of Obama’s approach and emboldened by the mutual contempt with which he has been received by many in Washington, President Trump has waged war on his own government by executing a four-pronged strategy of disparaging career staff, starving his departments and agencies of people and resources, installing experts capable of dismantling Obama-era regulations, and empowering those within the bureaucracy most likely to agree with his worldview.
The most shameful of Trump’s tactics involves impugning and hobbling the career bureaucracy in an effort to both shrink it, and make it subservient. Trump and his supporters insist that a “deep state” is out to thwart his agenda and the conservative-populist media – Breitbart, Cernovich, and others – along with his allies in Congress have been unleashed to question the patriotism and loyalty of civil servants of non-European descent as well as those who are perceived as a possible threat to the administration’s agenda. An early example of this was the career professionals serving at the National Security Council (NSC) when Trump was inaugurated being denigrated as “Obama holdovers.” (Some of them appear to have been placed in career purgatory, processing FOIA requests, after proving insufficiently loyal to the administration’s agenda or working in offices the administration has decided to disband.) The president casts the FBI as a deeply political organization (and a Democratic one at that, a surprise to anybody who has actually worked with the Bureau) and attacks its leaders. Congressional supporters level baseless accusations about secret societies driving the bureau to undermine the president. More subtle assaults on the expertise and integrity of career experts, especially in the scientific community, and attempts to single out those who had worked most closely on Obama’s core policy priorities have harmed morale at the agencies and created controversy that distracts from their core missions. In this context, it’s no wonder that the president’s recent call for civil service reform was received by many as only the most recent phase of a systematic purge. But this is exactly what Trump and his allies want. A demoralized and disempowered bureaucracy does less of the work that the president would rather that they not do.
By the end of the first year of his administration, President Trump had filled only 47% of top Senate-confirmed positions in the government (compared to 70-80% for his three most recent predecessors). In many cases, the people he nominated languished in the Senate confirmation process, but in other cases it’s hard not to see the failure to appoint senior officials as a deliberate decision. Without Senate-confirmed leadership, offices like the State Department’s bureaus responsible for human rights, refugees, and environmental issues can still perform their most basic functions, but they cannot regularly get a seat at the table in the secretary’s suite or the White House or aggressively advance the policies their bureaus were established to implement. The Trump team also seeks to starve government departments and agencies of financial resources, particularly when those funds would go to activities that don’t align with the president’s agenda. The President’s 2018 “skinny budget” proposed dramatic cuts to pretty much every agency except for the Defense Department. The State Department, which philosophically diverges from Trump’s America First worldview, faced a proposed 37-percent budget cut. The EPA, perhaps public enemy number one for Trump’s deregulatory agenda, prepared for a 31-percent budget cut. It took congressional intervention — from a Republican Congress, no less — to dial back these cuts from suicidal levels. In this environment, morale begins to wither and career staff begins to resign, either in principled opposition to the administration or out of frustration over the lack of priority that the administration places on certain government functions, just as the “small government” advocates hope they would.
Where the Trump team has been more proactive in terms of personnel is in appointing a team of ideological allies and personal devotees to government positions where they can advance his agenda. The staunch de-regulators, hailing from industry, industry-supported think tanks, or conservative legal institutions are expertly dismantling the regulatory regimes that formed the heart of the Obama policy legacy. Presidential appointees from the energy industry have taken leadership slots at the EPA and the Interior and Energy Departments. A cabal of climate change skeptic think tankers oriented around the Competitive Enterprise Institute served as architects of Trump’s EPA transition team and took up key posts at the agency. Savvy lawyers associated with the Federalist Society, George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, and Koch Industries have filled key administration posts and begun to advance a conservative deregulatory legal philosophy that they have steadily developed over the past decade. Trump’s regulatory chief is a conservative legal scholar from George Mason who calls for regulatory agencies to only act explicitly within their statutory authority, urges greater accountability from regulatory agencies to the president, and has suggested the need to rein in independent agencies and exert greater White House control over them. It’s not a far leap from this perspective to the president’s view that he should have much greater control over the Justice Department and FBI.
So much attention has been given to the near-daily outrages caused by the president’s incendiary rhetoric, the chaos of his White House, and his attempts to subvert the Russia investigation, that it has been almost easy to overlook Trump appointees’ successful execution of a broad deregulatory agenda over the past year. Regulations around carbon controls, offshore drilling, and overtime pay have been or are beginning to be rolled back. Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program unconstitutional, setting off the current immigration showdown, and rescinded 25 legal guidance documents that he believed constituted inappropriate uses of DOJ power outside of the regulatory process. Relying on a scarcely-used statute, the Congressional Review Act, the new administration worked with Congress to repeal 15 regulations adopted late in the Obama Administration. In the aggregate, the Trump team has taken 22 deregulatory actions for every one new regulatory action – a point of pride for the administration and its supporters. While Trump’s agenda on regulation follows the classic narrative of Republicans easing the regulatory burden on business, the speed of these moves and the savvy of his regulatory team suggests a philosophy and game plan that was years in the making.
The final leg of Trump’s governing approach also focuses on shoring up his support within the executive branch, by empowering his natural institutional allies, particularly in national security. President Trump faced early and sustained scorn from the Beltway foreign policy establishment. Dozens of leading GOP foreign policy experts signed a series of “Never Trump” letters during the campaign, questioning his fitness for the office, and they have held his administration in scorn ever since. For his part, Trump has expressed his own disdain for their “globalist” and neoconservative tendencies. It may have been this mutual contempt that led, or forced, Trump to name a campaign foreign policy team that included marginal talent, some of whom had substantial ties to Russia. The few Never Trumpers who attempted to mend fences and serve in the Trump Administration were rejected by a White House that keeps close tabs on its opponents.
With the foreign policy establishment against the administration and large parts of the bureaucracy skeptical of its agenda, the Trump team’s strategy seems to hinge on empowering the voices within the executive branch that are most likely to support its muscular America First worldview, while elbowing out the rest. Since taking office, he has relied on a network of active and retired military officers to lead his foreign policy team, many of them Iraq war veterans who had bristled at what they viewed as Obama’s weak Middle East policies. His NSC so far appears to be focused on delegating greater authority to the Pentagon and CIA while denying civilian agencies, which tend to oppose the President’s worldview, a prominent role in policymaking. The result has been a greater willingness to use force, bold and potentially dangerous moves toward Iran and North Korea, and increasing demands for longtime American partner nations to fend for themselves. These new policies have often been accompanied by unforced diplomatic errors and a string of operational mishaps, perhaps owing to a dysfunctional NSC process and the marginalization of civilian voices. (That a greater number of Trump’s foreign policy missteps have not received more attention is probably attributable to a crowded news cycle dominated by the Russia investigation and escalating tensions with North Korea.) The career professionals in the military and intelligence community have certainly reined in some of Trump’s most outrageous ambitions, including campaign promises to bring back waterboarding and to “take out” terrorists family members. And the national security community produced a National Security Strategy that largely maintains the core tenets that have guided decades of American foreign policy, with only passing references to the new America First approach. And by no means could our security professionals be cast as Trump supporters. But in a normal interagency process, tensions between soldiers, diplomats, spies, and humanitarians generally lead to measured policy. In the Trump White House, those favoring muscular approaches to world affairs are relatively unchecked — and America’s soft power is diminished under a President who has no use for such things.
Only one year into his presidency, it’s too early to say whether Trump’s war on the bureaucracy will be successful or to determine the precise kind of mismanagement and poor performance it may lead to. What is clear is that at least part of it is working as promised and the steady stream of government departures — and the resignation-confessional — is here to stay.