The Last Line Of Defense: Federal Bureaucrats Wait Nervously For Donald Trump

“I would take George W. Bush any day over this. I would take him in a heartbeat. Right now.”
He's coming.
He's coming.
Eduado Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump has promised to crack down on undocumented immigration, rebuild the country’s infrastructure and dramatically reform veterans’ health services. But in order to do any of that, he will need the help of the millions of federal workers around the country who keep the government running — and many of them are not excited about the agenda of their new boss. Some have even pledged to fight his proposed policies from within the government.

These civil servants have federal job protections that make it hard for any president to throw them out and replace them with new hires ― to “drain the swamp,” as Trump has put it. And they often have decades of experience and institutional knowledge that the incoming administration will need to ensure that the federal government doesn’t fall apart under the leadership of new, sometimes inexperienced, political appointees.

The Huffington Post spoke with dozens of federal workers from a broad range of government agencies about their feelings about working for Trump. Some say they’re leaving public service because they don’t want to be complicit in an agenda they oppose. Many say they’re going to wait and see how bad it gets. And others see themselves as the last line of defense against a president they believe could upend the world.

“I am a total fighter,” said one Environmental Protection Agency employee who has been in government for decades. There is no way she’s leaving her job, she said — she’s ready to go to the agency’s inspector general or the media if she sees the Trump administration breaking the law.

“Most of the federal agencies are made up of career employees,” she said. “When we get there, we stay there. It takes a long time to know how to do the job really well.”

But for many civil servants who have worked through other transitions, the incoming Trump team feels different. One federal employee who did not want his agency disclosed because he’s working on transition efforts said that for the first time ever, employees have been coming to his office in tears.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Never. Never these kinds of concerns,” he said. “I mean, you can disagree with people from a political or partisan perspective, but the norm is always that you treat people with a certain amount of civility and with decency and respect.”

“I would take George W. Bush any day over this,” said the EPA employee, who identifies as a Democrat. “I would take him in a heartbeat. Right now.”

People always lament when their candidate loses, but the level of fear and disgust directed toward Trump is different, said a Defense Intelligence Agency employee who came in shortly after President Barack Obama was elected.

“In 2008, people were certainly groaning like, ‘What’s this hippie going to do?’” the DIA employee said. “But I never heard people talking about quitting government because of Obama. I’m hearing that now.”

“Yes, we’re worried that our president might actually turn out be to a fascist,” said one Department of Labor employee. “That’s a not-insignificant cause for concern.”

Some defections will almost certainly happen, but the overwhelming majority of federal employees seem likely to stick around. Some said they plan to fight against Trump’s agenda from within. Others said they are holding out hope that their day-to-day duties won’t change significantly. Some said they simply can’t afford to leave.

The number of civil servants is staggering compared to the number of political hires Trump will get to place in federal agencies. According to the Office of Personnel Management, just 0.1 percent of employees at the major federal agencies will be Trump political appointees. That means civil servants will outnumber Trump appointees nearly 869 to 1.

Non-political employees in the federal government vastly outnumber those with political appointments.
Non-political employees in the federal government vastly outnumber those with political appointments.
Alissa Scheller

An accomplice, or a bulwark against Trump’s agenda?

One week after the election, Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies program sent an email to students encouraging them not to abandon their pursuit of a career in government because of Trump. The center’s interim director, Thomas McNaugher, told students that “it has never been more important for students like you to go into the government ― with enthusiasm ― taking with you the values and dedication to reasoned argument we emphasize.”

That argument resonated with most of the federal employees who spoke with HuffPost, though many were skeptical of their own ability to act as a check on a president who has repeatedly threatened to violate the law and flout international norms.

“A lot of people view themselves as an instrument of executive power,” the DIA employee said. People at the Pentagon’s intelligence unit regularly provide the president with classified information that informs decisions about military operations abroad. Now, the employee said, they’re worrying: “Am I going to be an unwitting enabler of war crimes under this administration?”

Trump vowed during his campaign to reinstate waterboarding. He has, at times, backed down from that position, but when he tapped Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), an advocate of “enhanced interrogation,” to head the CIA, people worried about what they would be asked to do.

“The intel community doesn’t want to be part of the group that does that again,” the DIA staffer said, referring to now-banned torture methods. He said he has already started looking for another job outside of government.

Part of the problem federal employees face is that they don’t entirely know what to expect from a Trump administration. On issues ranging from the use of torture to intervention in Syria to health care, Trump has taken vague, often contradictory stances. One of his most consistent positions is that he likes to be “unpredictable.”

The president-elect has turned down daily intelligence briefings, sending surrogates in his place. The person in Trump’s transition team who was dispatched to meet with officials from the Department of Energy ― the agency that oversees the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile ― showed up without a pen and didn’t ask any questions, according to one Energy Department staffer.

“Trump seems to be all over the place,” a Department of Homeland Security employee said. She has no idea, she said, whether Trump is going to take an isolationist posture or “bomb the heck out of everyone.”

She said she intends to leave the federal government and is applying for jobs in the private sector.

“There are a whole lot of career attorneys who are determined not to let their work get dismantled, by working twice as hard, by just being total pains in the butt if people try to undo their work.”

- Department of Justice official

For many federal employees who abhor Trump’s policy agenda, the question of what to do next is not an easy one.

Some workers, like a man who has been a paralegal at the Department of Veterans Affairs for over five years, see no choice but to quit.

“I cannot, in good conscience, work for either the bozo-elect or whoever he may appoint as the new secretary of the VA,” he said. “Honestly, I cannot accept the thought of having to look at photos of these clowns when I walk into my office in the morning.”

Others aren’t ready to walk away, especially those who have spent years in government.

“It’s only four years, and I’m not going to torpedo a career for Trump,” said one Department of Health and Human Services employee who has served in the government for a decade. “I’ll be less passionate about what I’m doing, knowing that I’m not helping people anymore but making their lives worse.”

An Interior Department employee in the Midwest worries that employees won’t be able to take climate change and other environmental concerns into consideration when going about their work ― which is a major concern, since Interior oversees endangered species protections, National Parks and much of the country’s public lands. But the worker said he feels it would be premature to quit his job before waiting to see what happens.

An employee at the National Institutes of Health told HuffPost he’s worried about who Trump will appoint to head his agency. “A science denier? An anti-vaxxer?” he said in an email. “What will it mean for national healthcare? For stem cell research? For clinical trials? For bigots claiming ‘religious freedom’ refusing to provide healthcare or medication to the LGBTQ community or Muslims?”

The NIH employee feels stuck. He’s spent nearly two decades in government and doesn’t want to forfeit his full pension and retirement benefits. And if he quits, he said, his job could be phased out.

To quit now, said some, would mean laying down their arms and giving up what they had won.

“There are a whole lot of career attorneys who are determined not to let their work get dismantled, by working twice as hard, by just being total pains in the butt if people try to undo their work,” a Department of Justice official said.

Losing protections on the job

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is Trump's pick to be the next attorney general. He is an outspoken opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, and failed to be confirmed to a federal judgeship in 1986 because of his comments on race.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is Trump's pick to be the next attorney general. He is an outspoken opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, and failed to be confirmed to a federal judgeship in 1986 because of his comments on race.
Marvin Gentry/Reuters

The federal government has strict rules on discrimination in its hiring and employment practices, which have helped made its workforce representative of the diversity of the country.

“The building I work in, you would swear it was the United Nations,” said a proud lifelong civil servant at the Social Security Administration’s office in Baltimore. “We’ve got white, we’ve got black, we’ve got brown. We have Muslims, we have Jews, we have Buddhists, we have Hindus. We have gays, we have straights, we have bisexuals. We have everybody.”

But many federal workers who fall into the various minority groups that Trump denigrated on the campaign trail worry that they won’t fit in his government. They fear that a workplace they love could fundamentally change.

“I think what is really concerning a lot of career individuals is some of the behavior that was exhibited on the campaign trail,” said the federal employee working on transition efforts. “What many of them are bringing to my attention and what they’re fearful of is some of that behavior being acceptable in the workplace.”

During the Obama administration, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees had increased visibility. Obama signed an executive order protecting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Marriage equality became the law of the land, and the ban on serving openly in the military was lifted. Internal staff organizations for LGBTQ employees at agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Housing and Urban Development became increasingly active.

Trump has said he opposes marriage equality (although he’s also said it’s a “settled” issue at this point). But his top officials have records that are far more hostile to LGBTQ equality ― starting with his vice president, Mike Pence, an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ rights. As governor of Indiana, Pence faced intense national backlash for signing a “religious freedom” law that could have allowed businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“Most LGBTQ people I’ve spoken to already feel their career advancements will be put on hold if they are ‘out out’ at this point,” said a Treasury Department employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community.

In part because of its discrimination protections, the federal civil service has always been known as a good place to work. The pay is fair, although many employees could take their expertise to the private sector and make significantly more money. But government jobs offer meaningful, stable work and substantial benefits.

But morale in the federal workforce has taken a significant hit in recent years. Pay freezes and furloughs have taken a toll, as has the constant battering from conservative critics who scoff at what they say are lazy, overpaid bureaucrats. Many worry that it will just get worse under Trump.

Conservatives who have long wanted to shrink the federal workforce, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), now an adviser to Trump, are salivating at what looks like a good chance to do so. Trump advisers have talked about instituting hiring freezes, putting an end to automatic raises, making it easier to fire low performers, weakening staff unions and reducing retirement benefits.

Trump himself has already promised to freeze hiring in his first 100 days by not replacing employees who leave. He has said he might shutter the EPA and the Department of Education entirely.

“I’ve got to get out,” said one woman who works at an Air Force base on the East Coast, nothing that she plans to retire as soon as she can next year. “I’ve got to get out before they start taking parts of our retirement.”

“I talked to my boss about retiring earlier,” said an IRS employee with nearly 30 years’ experience. “He said if he was eligible he’d retire today.” The employee said that would mean getting a little less monthly pension, but that having the retiree health plan is more important. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of the things that will be targeted.”

Slivers of hope

A few of the government employees who voted against Trump but have decided to stay say they have reasons to be cautiously optimistic about their careers.

To the extent that Trump has a mandate, it’s to improve the lives of the working-class voters who supported him. A Labor Department employee told HuffPost that he and some of his colleagues hope Trump’s populist appeal will translate into better paid maternity leave policies and infrastructure spending that results in more jobs. At the same time, he acknowledged, Trump’s rumored favorites for labor secretary “do not inspire confidence.”

There’s also the hope that there will be a fair amount of inexperience at the top, which could allow the career workers to continue doing their best as they see fit.

“We may fly under the radar to some extent,” said the Interior Department employee based in the Midwest. “I hope that I would be able, at least in my day-to-day job, be able to sleep at night and feel good about what I’m doing.”

Employees who have spent decades in government know it can take years for even the most aggressive officials to enact sweeping changes to bureaucratic agencies. As many a politician has learned upon coming to Washington, the city doesn’t transform easily.

Even the confirmation process can be cumbersome, with the possibility that deputy administrators could serve at the tops of agencies for significant periods of time if Senate Democrats decide to obstruct Trump’s picks ― as some federal employees hope they do.

And if all else fails, the EPA employee said, “there are many, many opportunities for impeachment.”

Sara Bondioli and Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.

Do you work in a federal agency? Email us at and let us know what you’re seeing and hearing, and if you’re thinking of staying in government for the next administration.

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