How to drain the swamp next time

News & Politics

The rising probability of another Trump administration brings in its wake dire warnings that a second-term Donald Trump will replace career bureaucrats with political appointees. Washington Monthlyforetells that Trump’s re-election will mean “out with the nonpartisan experts loyal to the law; in with the cronies loyal to Trump.” Experience, however, suggests that adding political appointees would benefit the next administration.

During the first Trump administration, political appointees very often paid greater heed to the law and the Constitution than did career bureaucrats. To drain the swamp more effectively the second time around, the Trump administration will need more, and better, appointees.

Self-serving political appointees proved to be the perfect pawns of the administrative state.

As a Trump appointee who led an office of career staff, I found that most federal bureaucrats carried out the orders handed down by the White House even though most had voted against the president. Nevertheless, subversives abounded in my agency and in most others. The subversion arose from the culture of the administrative state, rather than a centralized conspiracy, which ensured its survival on the few occasions when subversives received punishments.

The subversion began at the top, when partisan lawyers and bureaucrats launched the fraudulent Crossfire Hurricane investigation to unseat the president. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s ensuing probe and the first Trump impeachment sidetracked the administration for two years. Some of the chicanery was so flagrant that its perpetrators were eventually fired or forced out of the FBI and the Justice Department, including Peter Strzok, Kevin Clinesmith, and Bruce Ohr. Others, including FBI analyst Brian Auten, remained active to the end of Trump’s term.

At federal agencies, career bureaucrats fed information to sympathetic journalists and inspectors general to sabotage Trump appointees and obstruct policy changes. Trump appointees found their security clearances suspended or revoked on spurious charges by the same security bureaucrats who took no action against Democrats like Jake Sullivan and Colin Kahl for bona fide offenses. Like Viet Cong assassins, the subversive bureaucrats targeted the most committed and effective leaders, while leaving passive and corrupt leaders alone.

The main problem with the political appointees was not loyalty to Trump — political appointees are supposed to be loyal to the president. Rather, the problem was loyalty to self.

Self-serving political appointees proved to be the perfect pawns of the administrative state. Career staff polished apples for these appointees, showered them with praise in front of others, and helped them prepare for the end of the administration by lining up lucrative jobs at government contractors and nonprofit organizations. In return, the appointees let the bureaucrats do whatever they pleased.

I repeatedly found evidence at the U.S. Agency for International Development that bureaucrats were surreptitiously thwarting White House policies and preserving programs that the White House wanted to kill. Career staff prevented the funding of faith-based organizations by citing the fallacious argument of Obama appointees that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibited it. Career employees concealed agency activities and spending from political appointees as a matter of course.

Upon hearing allegations of corruption and mismanagement involving my own subordinates, I consulted the agency’s top human resources official. He said he could order an investigation if I requested one, while noting that many managers ignored misconduct because investigating would ruffle feathers and might cost people their jobs. That remark did much to explain why waste, fraud, and abuse runs wild through the federal bureaucracy.

I asked for an investigation, which uncovered evidence of corruption and toxic leadership. The foremost perpetrator would eventually be forced to leave the agency. In the end, however, the bureaucracy took care of its own. It found him a job in another agency and devised an insidious scheme to suspend my security clearance and then end my employment.

The scheme depended upon the complicity of a senior political appointee with enough self-loyalty to torpedo another appointee. As it happened, the No. 2 person at USAID fit the bill. She had secured that job even though her husband was the nation’s top lobbyist for the agency’s contractors. The White House can’t drain the swamp when its own appointees are swamp monsters.

After my termination, career bureaucrats forced out another senior Trump appointee at the agency through leaks to the press. They denounced him for cutting funding to programs that didn’t support Trump’s national security priorities and insisting that subordinates obtain his approval for expenditures. In other words, he was fired for doing what political appointees are supposed to do.

Congress can and should enact sweeping reforms to restore accountability and meritocracy to the civil service. Even if it does, though, political appointees will retain primary responsibility for ensuring the bureaucracy serves the Constitution, the law, and elected officials, rather than itself.

The current ratio of one political appointee for every 550 career employees is much too low to fulfill such a mission at agencies where most employees dislike the president’s policies. Should Trump win the coming election, the White House should hire more appointees and ensure that they have the integrity and conviction to see the president’s policies through, no matter the resistance from the career bureaucracy.

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