I was going out for a dinner engagement last week when I read the news that the acting attorney general Sally Yates had sent a memo to the staff that they should not defend Donald Trump’s Executive Orders on visitors and refugees that targeted Muslim nations because she felt that they were not legally defensible nor right nor just. During the dinner, I discussed this with friends and we predicted that she would be fired by Trump and sure enough, by the time I got home that had already happened, accompanied by a statement that had all the trademarked pettiness of Trump.
Career government officials are going to be increasingly faced with demands to carry out orders that they think are wrong. We should not underestimate what a difficult situation this puts them in. Peter Maass looks at their options when they come to believe that they are working for a government that has gone crazy. He says that people who have faced similar situations before, though perhaps not on this scale, suggest that rather than resigning, waging a bureaucratic guerilla warfare would be a better strategy. He spoke to four State Department people who resigned in the 1990s in protest US policy on Bosnia.
YOU ARE A DEDICATED civil servant and you have loyally performed your job for years, but suddenly you are confronted with tasks and policies that horrify you. Should you carry on, or should you quit?
[George] Kenney’s public resignation shocked Washington, as did the ones that followed. Marshall Harris was next, then Jon Western, then Stephen Walker — all of them 30-something diplomats who publicly turned their backs on secure lives working for the U.S. government.
What should a frustrated civil servant do? In recent weeks, The Intercept interviewed Kenney and the other officials who quit over Bosnia, and to a surprising degree they generally agreed that dissenting officials should stay in their jobs as long as possible in the Trump administration, working inside the always-powerful machinery of bureaucracy to keep destructive policies from being implemented.
“My advice would be to throw sand in the gears,” said Kenney, who was the first State Department official to resign over Bosnia. “You’re not going to do anybody any good by leaving. Nobody is going to listen to you. If you work in the EPA and think the Trump people are the devil, you and every mid-level person who can, mount an internal resistance. There should be opportunities for people who are smart to act in a classic bureaucratic passive-aggressive manner and just be obstructionist. It’s a situation that lends itself to creative opposition from within.”
Kenney said his views were shaped by a seminal text he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Written by economist Albert Hirschman, the book was called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States,” and it examined the choices that confronted dissatisfied consumers and officials. “Exit” was a euphemism for going elsewhere, “Voice” meant speaking up from the inside, and “Loyalty” meant staying silent. Hirschman, whose work is regarded as path-breaking, explained in a later essay that his original analysis of the efficacy of voice had been “too timid.” He noted the candidacies of George McGovern and Barry Goldwater — outsiders within their respective parties who rather than quitting or staying silent kept fighting and eventually won their parties’ presidential nominations.
“My point,” Hirschman wrote, “was of course that power grows not only out of the ability to exit, but also out of voice, and that voice will be wielded with special energy and dedication by those who have nowhere to exit to.
The growth of the government workforce since World War II has inevitably spawned a cascade of academic studies of bureaucratic politics, with a foundational text written by a Harvard professor, Graham Allison, whose 1971 book on the Cuban missile crisis examined three models for understanding how and why the crisis unfolded the way it did. Allison drew attention to what at the time was a relatively new model for making sense of how a state acts: the behind-the-scenes struggles of bureaucrats and bureaucracies. Allison compared it to a chess match in which the moves of one side are determined not by a single player (the president) or by a predictable strategy that is planned in advance, but by several bureaucratic players with distinct interests and strategies who battle each other over each move.
Even in the age of Twitter and stream-of-consciousness edicts from the commander-in-chief, “It’s not as though the president picks up the phone and says ‘This has to be done,’ and immediately things will be done,” Western said.
There are already signs that a bureaucratic guerilla war is taking shape behind the scenes.
Less than two weeks into Trump’s administration, federal workers are in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives. Some federal employees have set up social media accounts to anonymously leak word of changes that Trump appointees are trying to make.
And a few government workers are pushing back more openly, incurring the wrath of a White House that, as press secretary Sean Spicer said this week about dissenters at the State Department, sends a clear message that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”
At a church in Columbia Heights last weekend, dozens of federal workers attended a support group for civil servants seeking a forum to discuss their opposition to the Trump administration. And 180 federal employees have signed up for a workshop next weekend, where experts will offer advice on workers’ rights and how they can express civil disobedience.
It seems pretty clear that Donald Trump actually does think that things will be done immediately simply because he wants it and, when it doesn’t, he is going to accuse people of disloyalty or betrayal like he did with Yates, and this is going to create stress all the way down the bureaucratic chain.