Bureaucratic Insurgency

There are growing signs that the Deep State is seeking to thwart legal orders from President Trump. This is dangerous.


After Donald Trump’s surprising election win in November—and especially after indications during the transition that he would seek to carry out the dangerous policies on which he campaigned—many in my Twitter feed started talking about the power of the so-called “Deep State” to check him in the likely event the Republican-controlled Congress would not.  In particular, there have been calls for active resistance to Trump’s policies on the part of federal civil servants. There are signs that this is now happening.

Michael Shear and Eric Lichtblau in yesterday’s NYT (“‘A Sense of Dread’ for Civil Servants Shaken by Trump Transition“):

Across the vast federal bureaucracy, Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the White House has spread anxiety, frustration, fear and resistance among many of the two million nonpolitical civil servants who say they work for the public, not a particular president.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, a group of scientists strategized this past week about how to slow-walk President Trump’s environmental orders without being fired.

At the Treasury Department, civil servants are quietly gathering information about whistle-blower protections as they polish their résumés.

At the United States Digital Service — the youthful cadre of employees who left jobs at Google, Facebook or Microsoft to join the Obama administration — workers are debating how to stop Mr. Trump should he want to use the databases they made more efficient to target specific immigrant groups.


This article is based on interviews around the country with more than three dozen current and recently departed federal employees from the Internal Revenue Service; the Pentagon; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Justice and Treasury Departments; the Departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development; and other parts of the government. They reveal a federal work force that is more fundamentally shaken than usual by the uncertainties that follow a presidential transition from one party to the other.

Federal workers are more likely to be Democrats, according to surveys. But partisanship and ideology explain only some of the intense feelings among workers, many of whom have seen Democrats and Republicans in the White House come and go.

At bars after work, in employee break rooms, on conference calls and on social media networks, employees at agencies targeted for steep reductions fear for their jobs. They worry about Mr. Trump’s freeze on hiring and regulations, his pledge to reverse environmental protections, and his executive order shutting down immigration for refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Some federal workers welcome Mr. Trump’s promises to create new jobs, build infrastructure and lower taxes. Others say they are focusing on doing their jobs and trying not to be distracted by the political noise that surrounds them. Still others say they are struggling with the question of whether they want to work for a president with whom they so strongly disagree.


“What do you do,” asked Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, if you work at a place where the leader “avowedly renounces the work of that agency?”

“All of a sudden, you are faced with a real moral dilemma,” continued Mr. Connolly, whose district just outside Washington is home to thousands of federal workers.

Federal workers watched with growing alarm last year as Mr. Trump waged a campaign filled with antigovernment bombast and then during a transition in which he recruited cabinet secretaries hostile to the agencies they lead. Now they wait in these chaotic early days of Mr. Trump’s presidency as he and his political advisers use executive orders to shred the policies and traditions the workers have championed.


Career employees are particularly nervous at the E.P.A., which Mr. Trump repeatedly singled out for attack on the campaign trail, vowing at one point to “get rid of” the agency. On Monday, about 100 employees at the agency’s Chicago office, which oversees the enforcement of environmental regulations in five Midwestern states, used their lunch hour to protest the Senate’s confirmation of Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, to lead the agency. Mr. Pruitt was a fierce critic of its mission under Mr. Obama.

That civil servants, particularly those in agencies whose agenda tends to be more robust during Democratic administrations, are nervous as they wait to see what policies Trump seeks to implement is neither surprising nor problematic. It’s the normal course of events. Much more concerning is Maria Stephan‘s recent WaPo editorial “Staying true to yourself in the age of Trump: A how-to guide for federal employees.”

Less than three weeks into the administration of President Trump, resistance from inside the U.S. government is growing. About a thousand State Department employees have signed an unusual “dissent cable” expressing their opposition to the president’s executive order placing a temporary ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries. After the White House ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to cease advertising and outreach related to the Affordable Care Act, former agency workers and the law’s supporters pushed back, prompting the ban to be lifted in less than 24 hours. Still other federal workers have created social media accounts to leak information about new policies and directives from Trump’s political appointees. Nearly 200 civil servants signed up to attend a recent workshop to discuss legal rights and ways to challenge unethical or unconstitutional policies.

Bureaucratic resistance from below could cause significant difficulties for the Trump administration, which relies on the approximately 2.5 million civil servants in the federal government to implement policy. The new president is clearly aware of the power wielded by civil servants, who swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, not to any president or administration. One of Trump’s first acts as president was a sweeping federal hiring freeze affecting all new and existing positions except those related to the military, national security and public safety. Even before Trump’s inauguration, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives reinstated an obscure 1876 rule that would allow Congress to slash the salaries of individual federal workers. This was a clear warning to those serving in government to keep their heads down. Trump’s high-profile firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates, who refused to follow the president’s immigration ban, sent shock waves through the bureaucracy.

There are, however, strong arguments for experienced, ethical civil servants to remain in government. Professional bureaucrats are needed to provide high-quality, evidence-based advice, to warn when administration proposals may be outside the law, and, if necessary, to blow the whistle when legal and ethical lines are crossed. Conservative national security expert Eliot Cohen recommended that those who decide to serve in the Trump administration “keep a signed but undated letter of resignation in their desk” in the event that personal or professional red lines are crossed.

But resignation isn’t the only option. There are numerous courses of action for federal workers who are asked to participate in actions they believe to be illegal or unethical or when they are aware of such actions taken by others. Decisions about what to do (or what not to do) are both personal and contextual, based on one’s rank, one’s tolerance for risk, one’s preparation and where one sits in the federal bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats can challenge policies and practices while working from within. On the less risky end of the scale, they can engage colleagues and make the case for why an action or policy is illegal or unethical, work to modify the plan, elevate the issue, or seek advice from the agency’s general counsel office. They can create a paper trail, producing a clearly written account of the problem in question and the actions taken to address it. Under the George W. Bush administration, this tactic was used by career staff in the Environmental Protection Agency, who helped compile 600 pages describing legal mechanisms to regulate greenhouse gases despite the EPA administrator writing an unusual preface describing his personal skepticism. This paper trail later helped to justify further regulatory action. Civil servants can use meticulous documentation to challenge policies or directives they deem unethical or unconstitutional, particularly when the orders are given verbally rather than in written form.

Another option, albeit higher-risk, is for federal works to perform their duties at a foot-dragging pace. As University of Chicago law professor Jennifer Nou notes, such slowdowns, unlike overt strikes, are less likely to attract attention. This tactic was used during the Reagan administration by career civil servants in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service who challenged the president’s efforts to cut the food stamp budget and declare ketchup a “vegetable.” They performed the work that was technically required but refused to openly defend the policy to various constituencies.

In the riskier category of dissent options, federal workers can leak information about pending or actual policies with journalists, activists and influential people on the outside. A senior official at the Bureau of Land Management in the Clinton administration described the leaking of internal documents to interest groups as a particularly effective strategy.

There’s much more to the piece but that’s the gist. I find this highly problematic on a number of levels.

(A caveat. I have been, for the past three-and-a-half years, a Defense Department employee. I’m in what’s called the Excepted Service. While I have all of the benefits of my General Schedule counterparts, I’m employed on a term basis. And, while the Hatch Act and other restrictions apply to me, I’m employed as a college professor and have the academic freedom that’s normal within that profession. Which is to say, while the President certainly has substantial say on my employment, I don’t in any meaningful way work for him and am free to offer respectful criticism so long as I make clear I’m speaking in a personal capacity.)

First off, we must distinguish between orders that are illegal, immoral, and merely distasteful. Federal employees take an oath to the Constitution of the United States. They have a duty to disobey orders which, in their professional judgment, violate the Constitution or Federal law. There are numerous channels for doing this in an above-board fashion and strong legal protections for those who do so in good faith, even if the courts ultimately find that the action in question passed legal muster. (There are sporadic and anecdotal signs that Border Patrol and other Federal agents are overzealously and perhaps illegally enforcing the travel ban and other orders; if so, it’s an outrageous abuse of power.)

Federal employees are also citizens and human beings. They have every right to form moral opinions about matters of public policy. If they believe a policy to be unconscionable, they have a moral duty to refuse to carry it out. If, however, said policies are deemed to be lawful, they have no right to use their position to stop it once their objections have been overruled. In many cases, it will be possible to get reassigned or otherwise escape being forced to carry out the order personally. (There are, for example, accommodations made for religious objections.) If, for some reason, this is not possible, then their only recourse is to resign their post.

Almost all of Trump’s policy changes, however, fall into the third category: those which merely offend the policy sensibilities of much of the professional bureaucracy. For example, the national security community—myself included—almost unanimously find Trump’s departures from longstanding U.S. foreign policy positions to be dangerous if not catastrophic.  In these instances, the bureaucracy is on the weakest ground.  It is legitimate, in my view, to strongly protest decisions through official channels. The State Department’s Dissent Channel, for example, is a longstanding tradition in that regard and is a valuable release valve. Additionally, because Congress has oversight responsibility over essentially all Executive branch functions (with the White House staff as the most important exception) it’s perfectly legitimate to protest policy shifts through that venue.

What is not legitimate, however, is to engage in a conspiracy to slow roll the elected President of the United States in carrying out legal orders. Nor is it legitimate—although it’s certainly commonplace—to leak government work products to the press in order to resist the President from within. These actions, in fact, are quite dangerous.

After a series of scandals—and the ultimate assassination of a President!—in the nineteenth century, the United States moved away from the spoils system and adopted a professional civil service in 1883 with the Pendleton Act. Since then, rather than filling the government with partisan cronies, only the senior-most officials who most directly influence public policy or speak for the President are replaced when a new administration comes to power. That allows for the cultivation of expertise that has become even more vital as our society has grown ever more complex.

Still, poll after poll shows that the American public is skeptical of the civil service. Government workers are perceived as overpaid, incompetent, and lazy. Moreover, Republicans in particular think that civil servants are overwhelmingly Democratic partisans.  (For their part, civil servants don’t think much of the public they serve, either.)  Republican presidents have, for decades, been highly distrustful of some agencies in particular—the State Department, the EPA, the Department of Education, the Labor Department, and others—and not without reason. Democrats have similar concerns, also not without justification, of the Defense Department and the national security and law enforcement bureaucracies.

I fear that open revolt by the bureaucracy against Trump policies will generate significant backlash, perhaps even enough to allow Trump to roll back civil service protections and reinstitute something like a spoils system. We’ve already seen statements from the administration and gotten some backing from Members of Congress for the notion that even legitimate protest, like participation in the Dissent Channel, is an act of disloyalty that should be punished.

Like it or not—and I don’t—Trump was duly elected. It’s true but irrelevant that he did so while getting nearly three million fewer votes than his opponent, for whom I voted. Like it or not—and I don’t—both Houses of Congress are in the control of a Republican Party that’s increasingly Trumpist. That this reflects a combination of the artifact of a federalist system designed in 1787 for a vastly different political realty and perfectly legal if distasteful Gerrymandering of districts is unfortunate but not illegitimate.  They have every right to govern according to the platform on which they ran, subject to whatever parliamentary maneuvering that the minority party can use to thwart them and, of course, the rulings of the Judiciary on the Constitutionality of said policies. Absent an exceedingly unlikely removal of Trump through impeachment and conviction, this will remain true until either a biennial election changes the balance of power in the elected branches.

It is very much the role of professionals in the bureaucracy to point out the potential follies of these policy choices based on centuries of institutional knowledge. And, again, it’s their duty to resist illegal orders. Beyond that, however, their role is to carry out the wishes of the elected representatives of the people.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Government, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    There’s another consideration for slow walking: when Trump’s policies prove to be disasters he will blame the civil servants and seek to take it out on them. In that climate, one checkbox left unchecked can end a career. I think you may be underestimating the effect of the Republicans spewing contempt and disgust at government employees for several decades. It’s not like the Republican leaders have shown themselves to be fair in their dealings with anyone, much less the despised government worker.

  2. Tony W says:

    This will be an important debate – particularly on the morality of opposing a facts-denying administration when your entire agency’s job is to respond to real data.

    The agency mission is ostensibly to serve the public. When you are forced to behave in a way that violates that mission, is your greater duty to the taxpayers and their grandchildren, or to your boss?

    Does it matter that political leaders get swapped out every few years? Should we allow a temporary boss to destroy that which takes eons to create?

  3. Scott O says:

    I fear that open revolt by the bureaucracy against Trump policies will generate significant backlash, perhaps even enough to allow Trump to roll back civil service protections and reinstitute something like a spoils system.

    I think that we will hear that there is an open revolt even if there isn’t. Eg Nordstrom.

  4. Mikey says:

    I’ve been a federal employee for all of one week (having squeezed in under the national security exception to the hiring freeze), but I was in the hiring process for a while, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.

    I agree that we’re duty-bound to carry out directives that are legal even if we disagree with them. But at the same time, as you yourself point out:

    the national security community—myself included—almost unanimously find Trump’s departures from longstanding U.S. foreign policy positions to be dangerous if not catastrophic

    So what do we do? (The following is my personal opinion, of course.) We have a President whose policies, even though legal, could pose a true risk to national security. We have to carry them out. Seems to me the options we have are to make our concerns known through the proper internal channels, and if that doesn’t result in change, to slow-roll the implementation in the hope our foreign partners can use the additional time to adjust.

    Gerry Connolly (my congressman, BTW), also asks a valid question:

    “What do you do,” asked Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, if you work at a place where the leader “avowedly renounces the work of that agency?”

    I think for the most part a civil servant chooses the agency he/she works for because they support the mission of that agency. That’s certainly true in my case. What do we do when the agency head or cabinet secretary in charge of that agency is on public record opposing its mission? It’s like a company’s board naming a CEO who has made it clear he wants to put the company out of business.

    In this instance, I think, it’s harder to figure out what to do because opposing the leader’s objectives could mean true insubordination, which for the reasons you’ve outlined is problematic indeed.

    Finally, it disturbs me greatly that we’re in week three of this administration and already having this conversation. Only 205 weeks left to go…

  5. Pch101 says:

    The car is careening off of the cliff, and you’re worried that the attendant didn’t work hard enough to clean the windshield.

    At this rate, you’re going to rationalize our way into a dictatorship.

  6. KM says:

    As an employee, your first and foremost priority is to do your job. Obeying directive from your supervisors is a major component of that but not the ultimate end goal. If you are told to do things that, while legal, are questionably ethical and have a heavy chance of damaging what your job is supposed to do, how can you argue for obedience? This isn’t a personal conflict like a religious objection would be but rather a a challenge to the validity of the work itself.

    If a police chief issued a directive to start using substandard equipment to save money and you knew for a fact that equipment caused deaths repeatedly, are you obliged to place the order? If a bank executive asks you to use an older version of software that’s been known to be hacked but was/is still blessed by IT once upon a time, do you do it risking the company and customer’s personal data? If you have a boss that’s trying to bring down the company for personal or financial reasons and is issuing all sorts of weird, damaging (but somehow legit) orders, do you assist in the process knowing you’re helping do something wrong?

    The President is head of the bureaucracy but he is *not* the source of its legitimacy. They obey him because the Constitution says so but their authority derives from the Executive Branch itself, not its holder. Its a good example of respect the Office, not its occupant. They will comply to a degree but the work always comes first.

  7. Andy says:

    I left the federal civil service last month after 5 years. I was also an excepted service DoD employee. My departure had nothing to do with Trump, but I agree with the gist of this post. In my relatively short time in the civil service I certainly had to do my part to carry out policies that I thought were wrong, dumb, counterproductive and morally questionable. That’s the nature of working for government and anyone who choses to do so should understand the potential risks of a political realignment at the top. If they cannot reconcile the duties of their position with their own politics or moral code, then they have a responsibility to get a different position or leave government service.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Sorry, James, but no: we are beyond this now. Trump is a tool of this nation’s enemy, Vladimir Putin. He is profoundly corrupt. He legally holds the White House but has no legitimacy. He doesn’t even possess basic competence. Your obligation is to the United States of America, not to this cretin or to what passes for policy in the random, lunatic world of the Trump regime.

    Thank God for the deep government, frankly. They’re leaking like a sieve and they’re doing it to a purpose – to warn the people and the larger world that we have a dangerously unstable, incompetent, unfit creature in power. Trump needs to be removed from office whether by impeachment or under Amendment 25 as mentally unfit, which he manifestly is.

    The government employees who are doing all they can to hobble and expose this dangerous fool are patriots. Heroes.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    First, let’s wait until we see evidence that there actually is significant bureaucratic insubordination before we get too excited about it.

    Second, what @Pch101: said. Some sense of proportion. You do seem more concerned about others reacting to Trump in ways you disapprove than you do about Trump.

    Third, let’s hope that deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy people are behaving correctly, following the letter of the law and the charters of their organizations, and investigating the hell out of Trump’s ties to Russia,

  10. Scott O says:

    @gVOR08: Evidence? Who needs evidence these days?

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: I think that, within broad parameters, the President has the authority to redirect the mission of agencies under him.

    @Mikey: Connolly is right that it’s a moral dilemma but, for reasons I outlined above, the solution to those isn’t hard: Make your objections known and, if overruled, seek assignment to a post that doesn’t require you to carry out the policy or resign.

    @Pch101: As noted in the post, there are all manner of checks and balances in our system: Congress, the courts, and follow-on elections. Presidents who overreach tend to be forced back by those mechanisms.

    @KM: The answer to all those questions is Yes. In fact, almost all companies and government agencies use sub-standard software and equipment in order to save money, achieve standardization, for convenience, or some other reason. That’s not even a moral quandary.

    @michael reynolds: I agree with your underlying assessment of Trump but not this particular avenue for checking him. Unelected bureaucrats do not get to overturn the will of the electorate. Just as I warned against Obama enacting policies with which I was in agreement but through means with which I was not, there is the matter of precedent: that same power now gets wielded by a dangerous man with whom we don’t agree. The concurrence on unelected bureaucrats is not a requirement for governing in our system. Nor should it be. (And I said that of generals with whom I agreed opposing policies of Obama with which I disagreed: the elected commander-in-chief gets to make those calls, not the unelected professionals.)

  12. MarkedMan says:


    We have a President whose policies, even though legal, could pose a true risk to national security. We have to carry them out.

    In another realm, let’s take a look at what the Republicans and their Feckless Leader want to do with the FDA. They want to “remove bureaucratic red tape” by changing our system away from ‘safe and effective’ to just ‘safe’. This is a huge difference that will certainly result in increased patient risk and tremendous waste of tax dollars even if executed well. The Republicans, with their constant contempt for facts and actual results, will not execute it well. It will be a disaster and they will immediately have career FDA officials up on the hill to abuse and blame. Any resistance the career professionals can provide against disasters instigated by the fantasy based bloviators that comprise the modern GOP will make them heroes in my eyes.

  13. Barry says:

    @michael reynolds: Adding on – James, we just saw a ‘police revolt’ in James Comey’s quite deliberate slow-walking of an espionage investigation.

    When your side has any honesty here, we’ll listen.

  14. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    Make your objections known and, if overruled, seek assignment to a post that doesn’t require you to carry out the policy or resign.

    I understand…but at the same time, we’re not automatons who must execute each command without application of any judgment at all. That’s not even required of the lowest E-1 private.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: Exercising judgment in carrying out one’s orders is quite a separate thing from disobeying them entirely. Sid Kooyman, one of my ROTC instructors, once observed that “It’s an officer’s duty to selectively disobey orders.” What I took from that—and have exercised throughout my career, whether in uniform or out–was that it’s our duty to save our bosses from themselves. If the boss tells you to do something stupid out of anger, exhaustion, or temporary bad judgment, I think it’s not only permissible but required to delay acting on it until he can regroup. So, I don’t expect agencies to react to every Tweet Trump sends out. I do, however, expect them to carry out sustained policy initiatives regardless of whether they believe them wise.

  16. The situation described in the post is one of the substantive negatives in electing someone like Trump. Either the existing institutions conform to established norms of behavior, and implement disastrous policies, or they deviate from established norms and undermine the legitimacy of a long-established, functional, system.

    This is one of a long list of reasons I have described a potential Trump presidency as potentially “historically disastrous.”

    His very approach to government undercuts our institutions and causes other actors in the system to either abet him, or to undercut in other ways.

  17. Pch101 says:

    @James Joyner:

    As noted in the post, there are all manner of checks and balances in our system

    You don’t seem to appreciate the fact that we are potentially on the brink of descending into an authoritarian kleptocracy.

    And no, I never made any such comments about previous presidents of either party, including George W. Bush even though I despised his time in office and he did real long-term damage to the country.

    This situation is different. It is uniquely bad. When are you going to figure out that this is not business at usual?

  18. @Barry:

    we just saw a ‘police revolt’ in James Comey’s quite deliberate slow-walking of an espionage investigation.

    An interesting example, although perhaps not in the way you are suggesting (I am not 100% sure of your point).

    However, the entire FBI business during the election is a good example of an agency acting, in my opinion, in a political fashion to the national detriment. We do need to be careful what we wish for.

  19. @James:

    Nor is it legitimate—although it’s certainly commonplace—to leak government work products to the press in order to resist the President from within. These actions, in fact, are quite dangerous.

    While I understand the problems with leaks, I think that they are likely to best route in the current circumstance insofar as getting information into the public sphere is the best way to deal with this situation.

    Of course, Trump and his allies will simply see it as the lying press sharing fake news. But enough actual information in the public domain could diffuse real problems more than perhaps any other factor.

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Trump is but one of many problems right now. Historically, the Republicans in Congress would check executive abuses either out of principle or institutional jealousy over power. But in recent years we’ve adopted something akin to parliamentary-style party loyalty, which simply can’t work in an irresponsible government system.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The main problem with leaks is that it further motivates keeping the bureaucracy out of the decision-making loop entirely.

  22. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @James Joyner:

    Professional bureaucrats are needed to provide high-quality, evidence-based advice,

    And when the boss says ‘ I don’t care about evidence, I have no use for facts’ – What to do?
    Now, I’m not speaking of rejection of the “advice” based on evidence, for it can be argued that the “advice” is subjective. I’m referring to the outright rejection of concrete evidence, or the preferred adoption of “alternative facts” that have no evidence basis.

  23. @James Joyner: But they will be in the implementation loop by definition (and as we saw with the EO on immigration, I am not sure they are in the decision-making loop anyway).

    It actually appears that a lot of the leaks we are seeing are from non-civil service types anyway.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    Look, there are no good options here. The Republicans, and the people who vote for them, have profoundly endangered our country.

  25. Modulo Myself says:

    We’ve already seen statements from the administration and gotten some backing from Members of Congress for the notion that even legitimate protest, like participation in the Dissent Channel, is an act of disloyalty that should be punished.

    Right, they want to destroy dissent because they can’t take no for an answer. That’s the problem. You make it sound like the question of whether one should just follow orders has been solved in a reasonable way by humans. It hasn’t. The entire question of culpability in any authoritarian state hangs on what it means to be a person ordered to do something.

    Honestly, the profound willed innocence of Americans is ludicrous. Read a book about any place other than America. There are no answers in rulebooks.

  26. al-Ameda says:

    A fair share of the 62.9 million people who voted for this Super Fund Site of a President, were willing to do so in order to get the overall Republican agenda implemented.

    Frankly, and I say this in the sunny and optimistic spirit of Mitch McConnell, I hope this presidency comes to an end prior to 2020 with no loss of life, no damage to the economy, and no lasting damage to previously thought to be beneficial foreign alliances.

  27. george says:

    I always liked the BBC show “Yes, Minister”, a comedy which runs on this theme (brilliant show if you’ve never seen it).

    I kind of think of the Deep State as just another check and balance; there’s inertia in physical objects, which is good because it makes steering vehicles (everything from cars to jets to ships) much easier and steadier. I think its a good thing to have this in bureaucracy as well – not only in exceptional cases like this, but even in normal times. It keeps new governments (ie new Presidents, new Prime Ministers in Parliamentary systems) from going off the rails with ideas that sound good in theory but not so good when applied to much more complex reality.

    In research you spend 90% of your time trying to figure out how to actually run a cutting edge experiment (unless its a trivially easy experiment), and then run off realms of data once all the bugs and unexpected complications are worked out. I’d say this is even more true for the much more complex task of governing a country.

    Inertia is often a very good thing.

  28. Lit3Bolt says:

    @James Joyner:

    Trump is already compromised by multiple conflicts of interest with foreign agents and his businesses. His Cabinet is composed of kooks and clowns, some of which are totally dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they head.

    As you repeatedly note, Trump was duly elected. However, for some reason, none of his actions yet have crossed a moral event horizon for you, probably because Trump hasn’t put an avowed pacifist in charge of the DoD who wants to unilaterally disarm the United States and turn the Pentagon into a shopping mall (after it levitates first, of course).

    It’s fine that you probably don’t care much for the EPA, the Labor Dept, the BLM, or HHS. Are you equally sanguine about say…the DoE? Trump cronies messing with NASA? The DIA?

    What about the agencies that were are really talking about here…the NSA and the CIA? Every single person who works they has received more scrutiny for security clearances than Trump could ever stand. They had to show their tax returns. Except now he’s the President, and can grant access to anyone in his administration with a wave of his hand, including his children and son-in-law. Since Barron knows the cyber, I’m sure he can be trusted with high clearance.

    How would you like to see your life’s work squandered away by a self-proclaimed Know-Nothing? Your fellow agents endangered by possible Russian partisans lurking in the administration? Or your CinC blowing an asset’s cover with a tweet?

    Would you lie for your CO? Would you LIE ALL THE TIME for your CO, to cover up his incompetence and failures? Because that’s what Trump ultimately demands. And no, he’s not going to “regroup.” There’s no temporary bad judgment with Trump. It’s always bad.

    I’m sure the Draft-Dodger-in-Chief appreciates you going to bat for him, though.

  29. michael reynolds says:

    Elections have consequences. 46% of Americans failed in their duty to this country. The single most important element in our system, the voter, failed catastrophically. Now others – the judiciary, the demonstrators, the deep government – are struggling to minimize the damage.

    My analogy is to an immune system reaction. We are attempting to stop a deadly cancer from killing the whole body. Normal is all over now, we are in the chemotherapy stage.

  30. Gustopher says:

    It might also be worth thinking of this as just any organization, rather than the government.

    How do the employees react when there is a reorg that changes all their priorities, and which is stupid and self-destructive on the surface? Generally, they react badly. Morale is destroyed, efficiency takes a nose-dive, the best people leave, and the new management’s goals are hobbled.

    That’s the situation in a lot of departments. Now layer on all the “Deep State” stuff, with the obligation to the country rather than the president, and the temptation to leak when the administration lies or asks for something illegal, immoral, or just plain offensive.

    On the plus side, the hiring freeze will make it harder for Trump to restaff with loyalists.

  31. Pch101 says:

    As you repeatedly note, Trump was duly elected.

    Hitler was duly appointed as chancellor and his party won seats in the parliament. All legal.

    If there was an Outside the Reichstag blog in 1933, then we would be advised to go along for the ride in spite of our misgivings because an allegedly constitutional process produced the result. All the while, we would be told to wait for the system to save us even though it was the system’s inability to defend itself from a determined authoritarian that was destined to destroy us.

    No, I’m not quite expecting Nazism, but I would not be surprised if things get worse. The one thing that can interfere with this downward spiral is the judiciary, and Trump is clearly endeavoring to render it ineffective with his talk of “so-called judges.” (Odd how the right wing seems to be utterly unfamiliar with Article 3 and Marbury v Madison.)

  32. Lit3Bolt says:


    There is more consequential IC pushback happening, too. Our spies have never liked Trump’s lackadaisical attitude toward the President’s Daily Brief, the most sensitive of all IC documents, which the new commander-in-chief has received haphazardly. The president has frequently blown off the PDB altogether, tasking Flynn with condensing it into a one-page summary with no more than nine bullet-points. Some in the IC are relieved by this, but there are pervasive concerns that the president simply isn’t paying attention to intelligence.

    In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.

    Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.

    What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.

    Response from Dr. James Joyner: “Trump was duly elected whether we like it or not…” A weak milquetoast defense of institutions, and certainly his political party, that have failed to prevent Russian agents from penetrating the White House. Typical weak-sauce Republican reluctance to go even SLIGHTLY against their party, and indicates a desire to just sit on their hands and hope the Russian agents in the White House just go away on their own.

    I’m mad as hell, most of all at people I assumed would actually protect me and my family from this crap.

  33. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    As noted in the post, there are all manner of checks and balances in our system: Congress

    James Joyner, master of wry humor.

  34. Andy says:

    If the Deep State can “check” the Executive Branch, shouldn’t it also check the Judicial and Legislative branches?

  35. Raoul says:

    Not one single example of overreach was provided except for ICE which ironically are the most ardent Trump supporters. Me thinks JJ proteth too much. Also JJ next post basically states that some EO are not reviewable by the courts- unbelievable. His view of excepted service is also wrongheaded-basically there is no difference between excepted service and general schedule. Excepted service is not for term. All excepted service means is that is not a competitive position: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excepted_service

  36. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The situation described in the post is one of the substantive negatives in electing someone like Trump. Either the existing institutions conform to established norms of behavior, and implement disastrous policies, or they deviate from established norms and undermine the legitimacy of a long-established, functional, system.

    One danger of this is the self-politicization of the civil service, which Trump could then use as a pretext to remove those who place the national interest before his political and financial interests and replace them with willing toadies.

  37. @Mikey:

    One danger of this is the self-politicization of the civil service, which Trump could then use as a pretext to remove those who place the national interest before his political and financial interests and replace them with willing toadies.

    Exactly. A politician like Trump corrupts the system by his own actions and by the reactions he creates in the established system.

  38. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner: As a retired senior NCO, I am well aware of the need to sometimes, er, seriously consider all relevant factors in the execution of an order, which, you know, can take a while…haha…

    That’s the slow-walking I was talking about in my initial comment. We can’t refuse legal directives, but we can apply our good judgment and determine immediate implementation could result in damage to our national interests, and maybe drag our feet a bit.

  39. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I believe that DT and his minions are quite capable of issuing instructions to individual Federal agencies that are flatly illegal or legal only under the most brainless construction of executive authority (i.e., the “unitary presidency”). Under these circumstances, “malicious compliance” is a viable option. That is, carry out the directive in the most empty-headed, literal-minded way. There is no disobedience issue, but it might have the desired effect.

  40. Barry says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “An interesting example, although perhaps not in the way you are suggesting (I am not 100% sure of your point).”

    Comey refused to sign off on the IC’s preliminary conclusions. Also, if sending a public letter to Congress on jack squat is the standard, he should have been sending one to Congress about Trump’s Russian connections.

  41. al-Ameda says:


    Adding on – James, we just saw a ‘police revolt’ in James Comey’s quite deliberate slow-walking of an espionage investigation.

    By deliberately interjecting himself into the campaign for the presidency Comey was playing a very dangerous game.

    He’s extremely fortunate that Trump won and Republicans control the entire legislative branch, because if Democrats had won the White House and the Senate, there would most certainly be an investigation into his actions (twice) to derail Hillary Clinton, and into his decision to to NOT disclose that candidate Trump was the subject of an investigation too.

  42. James Joyner says:

    @Raoul: The Excepted Service gives the employer the right to hire highly qualified people in a way that would be difficult in the GS process. Our posts are Title 10 professorships and they’re term positions. We start off with a two-year contract, with the first year being probationary. After that, we’re renewed for three-year terms.

  43. Walther says:

    I’m not seeing the strategy at play here. Just what the hell do these bureaucrats think they’re going to accomplish?

    Public sector unions exist because of an executive order from President Kennedy (EO #10998). Trump has already shown that he has no problem overturning other EOs. With one swipe of his pen, there goes their right to collectively bargain with the government.

    Civil Service protections are the product of laws passed by Congress. Trump’s party controls both Houses of Congress, and could always just abolish the Senate filibuster if they wanted to rework the Civil Service system.

    Trump’s PR campaign for such a move writes itself. “We’ve all dealt with government bureaucrats who get a kick out of abusing their authority by refusing to help people. Now they’re just flat out refusing to do their jobs. No one has a right to refuse to do their job and keep that job. And believe me, anyone who says they won’t do their job, I’ll personally tell them ‘You’re fired.'”

    Their job is not to set policy, it’s to carry out policy. If they don’t want to do their job, which is to carry out the lawful directives of their superiors, all the way up to the president, then they can quit. We all know they’ll get lionized for their “courage,” and — if they’re high enough up in the food chain — they can get a nice, soft landing with a book deal or some job with a left-wing think tank or activist group.

    The first question anyone should ask themselves before they take any kind of big action is “what will this accomplish?” In this case, the answer is “give Trump and the GOP the excuse they need to totally eviscerate the Civil Service system.”