If former Vice President Joe Biden takes office on January 20, current and former federal workers say one of the toughest and most important items on his to-do list will be to undo the damage wrought by four years of neglect and sabotage.
“I think that the most immediate action for the next president has to be — I hate to call it a purge — but any holdovers from the Trump administration have to be removed from their posts,” said Chuck Park, a former career foreign service officer who resigned from the State Department last year after penning a Washington Post op-ed on how he no longer wanted to be part of a “complacent state”.
Park explained that in a normal presidential transition scenario, many appointees from the outgoing administration are often permitted to remain in place while the new president considers replacements, then accepts their resignations. But he said the low calibre of people installed under Trump makes that practice one which his successor should avoid.
“I think in the case of this president, the quality and the quality of his appointees is so low… that they need to be removed immediately,” he said.
Both the number of such “low quality” appointees and the reach of their authority has expanded significantly since February, when Trump — newly emboldened following the end of his impeachment trial — installed his former personal aide, John McEntee, as the head of the White House personnel office. McEntee, a former University of Connecticut football player, had been fired from the White House in 2018 amid allegations of financial crimes, but the president brought him back into the administration with a mission to purge the federal government of both political appointees and civil servants perceived as insufficiently loyal to Trump himself.
The result of Trump’s and McEntee’s efforts has been an exodus of the most experienced, most qualified senior civil servants from government service, the likes of which the country has never seen. In their place, the White House has largely eschewed the practice of allowing top career agency employees who are part of the Senior Executive Service to occupy management positions, instead installing so-called Schedule C political appointees — who take orders directly from the White House — in day-to-day direct management roles rather than the policy-centric positions they have traditionally occupied.
Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees — the largest union representing federal workers — said the use of political appointees to micromanage federal workers based on White House diktat is a practice that Congress may need to step in to prohibit going forward.
“If we’re going to see agencies really excel, I think you definitely need that [a separation between policy positions and day-to-day management]. You need more SES and not necessarily political appointees, because in my opinion the problem with this administration is that under so many political appointees, the agencies have failed,” he said, adding that he believes that failure is the administration’s intent with some agencies.
But Ned Price, a former career CIA employee who served as a National Security Council spokesperson under the Obama administration, said drawing too hard a line between leadership roles that can be filled with political appointees and those that must be filled from the ranks of civil servants could hamper a future administration. It could, quite simply, prevent it from hiring people who genuinely want the government to succeed.
“I think that there's an important role for appointees to play in any administration… In fact, most previous administrations have used these to good effect to bring in people who have served previously at high levels, people who have outside perspectives, people who bring something to the table, that a career professional might not. But I think what this administration has done is really perverted that system and used it as a spoils system to reward campaign operatives, people who have been loyal to the President, people who have consistently demonstrated their willingness to prioritize the President's interest over the national interest,” he said, while cautioning against “over-correcting” with legislation out of a desire to “sabotage-proof” the executive branch against future mismanagement.
“There may be a role for Congress when it comes to reinvigorating the career ranks, especially when it comes to people who have resigned during this administration, but I also think that the next Democratic administration will automatically correct many of the things we’ve seen from this one,” he said. “I think the wisest course would be to avoid electing another president who would seek to destroy it from the inside.”
While Price was skeptical about the need for congressional intervention, former Trump administration appointee, ex-Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Threat Prevention and Security Policy Elizabeth Neumann, echoed Kelley’s concerns. She said the administration’s use of political appointees at DHS since former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation has filled the agency’s ranks with what she called “Stephen Miller people” who’ve been overwhelmingly hostile to the experts who served at the agency for years.
“Since 2019, it’s just become so clear that they don't trust anybody at DHS who is a civil servant. It felt like everybody was a suspect of being the ‘deep state’ or not being loyal to Trump, and it became so you're either a Trump loyalist or you're an obstacle in their way,” she explained.
Neumann predicted that the Trump administration’s treatment of civil servants will leave the next president with a federal workforce that is beaten down and exhausted from four years of attacks, marginalization, and neglect.
“You can't counteract the impact that all of these Stephen Miller acolytes have on the department, at least at the headquarters level,” she said. A future President Biden would do well to nominate someone who is not seen as political in any way to lead the department, she added, and to increase the department budget so it can hire more career-track people instead of cannibalizing the budget to hire more and more political appointees and contractors as the Trump administration has done.
But other agencies might have bigger problems than morale or a lack of personnel.
Dr Rick Bright — the former Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority director and career Department of Health and Human Services employee who recently left government service after blowing the whistle on the Trump administration’s quixotic push to use hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment — warned that under HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the ranks of HHS have been polluted with unqualified appointees who have been converted to civil service positions.
“When this administration moves out, they're gonna leave behind a lot of new civil service employees that are embedded” in order to sabotage an incoming Democratic administration, he said. “It’s going to be really tough to do… but we have to figure out how to identify those people.”