Almost four years ago, US President Donald Trump rode into office with a virtual declaration of war on the public sector, vowing to “drain the Washington swamp” and in the words of his then strategist, Steve Bannon, “deconstruct the administrative state”.
In pursuing that aim, numerous federal agencies have been abolished or emasculated and professional people have been replaced by political appointees, regardless of expertise. The reach of policy has been deliberately shortened. Part of this “deconstruction” was the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to dismantle a National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic would hit the nation. [Trump appeared to know little about this when asked, the decision apparently the work of the now-departed National Security Adviser, John Bolton, long an ardent champion of small government.]
Nearing the end of the first term under Trump, the federal bureaucracy is still standing, but it has been immeasurably weakened, in both capacity and quality. Yet, even if Trump is defeated in next month’s election (and leaves office, which is not at all clear), the lingering effects of the assault will be felt for years to come.
The administration has been concerned at limiting any research activity that might contradict its policies, and a prime example here is at the federal Departure of Agriculture where, in 2018, it centralised control of both research and publication, prompting the departure of many top researchers. By 2019, non-retirement departures from the department had more than doubled compared to the previous three-year average.
The assault began when the office of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue issued an internal memo directing the Economic Research Service and other research branches to include disclaimers in their peer-reviewed publications stating that the findings were “preliminary” and “should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy” – seen as a way of watering down unflattering data from the department’s own experts.
In just the first eight months of the administration, some 12 per cent of foreign affairs officers departed – an unprecedented exodus.
The Economic Research Service – an authoritative source of closely read reports on farm income and other topics that can shape federal policy, planting decisions and commodity markets – had drawn criticism from Secretary Perdue over its findings on how farmers had been financially harmed by President Trump’s trade battles, the Republican tax code rewrite and other sensitive issues, according to current and former agency employees.
Another affected agency is the Department of Homeland Security, which has been at the centre of the President’s obsession to slow down migration across the Mexican border. Amid numerous court challenges, many officials were reluctant to execute orders that might be found to be illegal, and by mid-2019 staff turnover had became dire. One anonymous former official from the department was quoted in media reports as saying that the department was “has been gutted at all levels, from component heads to assistant secretaries to senior staff to counsellors”.
However, by far the greatest impact has been at the State Department. Relations between the White House and the department hit an early hurdle in the very first days of the administration when the controversial Muslim travel ban was announced, triggering a State Department dissent channel memo – a mechanism designed to protect diplomats from making an argument contrary to existing US foreign policy. The dissent channel was established during the Vietnam War so that top State Department officials would have access to different points of view on the war. The department usually receives around four or five dissent channel messages a year.
It quickly attracted more than a thousand signatures, prompting then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer to quip when asked about it: “These career diplomats have a problem with it? I think they should either get with the program or they can go.” The White House then forced several senior career diplomats out of the service; others left of their own accord.
In just the first eight months of the administration, some 12 per cent of foreign affairs officers departed – an unprecedented exodus. They were predominantly from the upper tiers of the service – 60 per cent of career ambassadors, 42 per cent of career ministers and 17 per cent of minister counsellors. On top of this, a hiring freeze slashed the intake of new foreign service members from 366 in 2016 to just 100 in 2017. Applications to join the foreign service dropped by 26 per cent in the first year of the administration.
The attrition has led to a stern warning that, because hundreds of long-standing vacancies in State Department posts worldwide remain unfilled, US foreign policy is being undermined and there are increasing security risks to diplomats. The assessment is contained in a detailed study issued in 2019 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which concluded that chronic vacancies overstretch US diplomats and hamper morale while hamstringing US foreign policy initiatives on issues from nuclear non-proliferation to anti-fraud efforts. The State Department, according to GAO, “doesn’t have a plan to address this issue”.
Of 989 overseas posts for security officers overseas, 160 of them are vacant at the time of writing. The report says vacant security-related positions pose increased dangers to US diplomats and their families abroad. “Vacancies in security officer positions at overseas posts reduce the amount of time that security staff can spend identifying, investigating, and responding to potential security threats to the post,” it says. “Because of vacancies in these positions, some security officers had been unable to complete this work for their posts, potentially increasing the risk of foreign government officials gaining access to sensitive information.”
Gaps in information management positions also “increased the vulnerability of posts’ computer networks to potential cybersecurity attacks and other malicious threats,” the report noted.
- Dr Norman Abjorensen is a political historian. His Book, A Ridiculous Man: Donald Trump and the Verdict of History, was published last month.