To work or not to work with Trump

To work or not to work with Trump

Peter Van Buren
What do you do when you’re a federal employee working for an administration and you don’t agree with its policies?

I have some experience with this question. Ronald Reagan signed my commission when I entered the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service officer, and Barack Obama was president when I retired. Over the intervening 24 years I was present for multiple presidential transitions. 

There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about President Donald Trump’s first 100 days and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and now suggest civil servants and intelligence officers will resign en masse. 

Some of the concern among federal workers comes from lack of experience. No matter how much or little experience one has, not everyone is going to like what is coming next. On a practical level, what can you do?

Remember this is what you signed up for. Every federal employee takes an oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. If you’re thinking of resigning because the wrong candidate won, you’re probably in the wrong business.

If you stay, the strategy many have followed in the past is patience. No president – or policy – lasts forever. Ideas promoted in an election can disappear overnight as world events intervene. Political appointees, ideologues and amateurs can move on quicker than expected, often backfilled with steady careerists. 

Staying can be hard, but there are ways to make it easier. One is to seek out offices and programs with less of a partisan focus. 

There are those who will want to change the system or alter policy. That goal needs a tough-love reality check: how much effect on change do you have now under the best of circumstances? Don’t expect your powers to level-up just because there was an election; in fact, it may be the opposite. The political appointees Trump will send into federal offices have as their purpose driving his agenda. They have the ear of powerful people, and you likely don’t.

The final option is to consider resigning. Everyone has limits to their conscience.

But you’ll probably be alone, or near enough. Policies of significant moral consequences over the 15 years of the “war on terror” are not new – torture, drone killings, spying on Americans and allies, manipulated intelligence. There were few public resignations as a result, certainly nothing reaching anywhere near “en masse.” One of the most divisive events inside the State Department in recent times was the decision to send diplomats in large numbers to Iraq in support of the 2003 invasion. Internal opposition grew so strong that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened to compel people to work in Iraq, breaking State’s long more-or-less volunteer tradition for dangerous assignments.

The result? Most people ended up voluntarily going to Iraq when needed anyway. Out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over Iraq, one other related to Afghanistan. 

Resignation from federal government service is a nuclear option that affects everything: family relationships, security clearances, future government and contracting jobs, mortgages student loans and one’s own mental health. Pensions and other retirement benefits require 20 or more years on the job; few people 17 years in are going to quit. The decision to risk all is deeply personal and cannot be made en masse.

For me, when the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the U.S. reconstruction program in Iraq under Presidents Bush and Obama reached the limits of what in good conscience I could participate in, and after failing to see any change by going through channels, I chose to blow the whistle via my book, We Meant Well. My opposition was to a policy pursued under two presidents, one of whom I actually campaigned door-to-door for. The State Department in response flirted with sending me to jail, tried to fire me and in the end pushed me into an early retirement.

It is early days for the Trump administration. Slow down. Focus on specific policies of concern as opposed to a person. Think practically, not emotionally.