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Trump Fires Attorney General: Feud With The Bureaucracy?

  • Calvin Wolf
  • Feb 1, 2017 11:42AM

President Donald Trump has been embroiled in controversy since being sworn in on January 20.  With a flurry of executive orders, Trump has sought to implement his controversial campaign promises, including the construction of a full-length wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Liberals and moderates who hoped that the bombastic billionaire was only paying lip service to angry voters during election season have been disappointed. But even as members of the public fume and rage, a more important battle is brewing:  President Donald Trump versus the federal bureaucracy.

Already incensed by Trump’s federal [civilian] bureaucracy hiring freeze, civil servants are likely even further riled by his sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates.  Yates, an Obama appointee who was filling in as AG until Trump nominee Jeff Sessions received Senate confirmation, had disagreed with President Trump’s executive order on banning all incoming immigrants and refugees from several Middle Eastern nations.  When she instructed Department of Justice attorneys to “not make legal arguments” defending the executive order, she was fired by hand-delivered letter.

While presidents do have the right to terminate members of non-regulatory executive branch agencies, the suddenness of Trump’s firing of Yates has raised eyebrows.  Of particular concern is that Trump is ignoring the counsel of the agencies that inform him of the feasibility and legality of his proposals.  When your acting Attorney General says your executive order is unacceptable, perhaps you should listen instead of pulling out a pink slip. 

Trump’s supporters will likely explain the incident as necessary and proper to ensure that the federal bureaucracy understands that Donald J. Trump is indeed the new chief executive. To prevent high-ranking bureaucrats from engaging in power struggles with the White House, they will argue, a message had to be sent. Critics fear that Trump’s hasty termination of Yates signals far worse than a mere show of Oval Office strength:  It signals immaturity and aggression, or perhaps even a calculated attempt to intimidate the bureaucracy and showcase the president’s disdain for it.

“Do what I say, or else,” is the implied threat in Trump’s firing of his acting AG. Though many would insist that this is reasonable, for Trump is indeed the chief executive, others posit that it puts federal workers in an unfair bind: What should they do if the president is engaging in unconventional, possibly unconstitutional behavior? Bureaucratic leaders may fear that they will be left holding the bag if Trump is violating the Constitution, forced to jeopardize their future careers by carrying out illegal orders. 

Donald Trump, the wealthiest president in American history, can go back to his luxury penthouses if Congress impeaches him for running roughshod through his first term. Career bureaucrats have no such golden parachutes, and may fear that their future prospects will be tainted under subsequent presidential administrations. If they obey Trump today, will they be reviled in 2021 under President Sanders, President Booker, or President Warren? 

Having to choose between one’s ethics and continuing to feed one’s family is a position we should not allow our nation’s bureaucrats to be in. If we expect these civil servants to stand up for us in our times of need, then we should stand up for them and vocally criticize Trump’s unorthodox termination of Sally Yates, whom his administration criticized personally about being “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” At the very least, White House press secretary Sean Spicer should not have been instructed to bash Yates on her way out.

The raw animosity, both in Yates’ open refusal to support her boss’ executive order and in Trump’s hasty and vocal termination of her employment, reveals a growing rift between the White House and its vast executive branch.

These are no ordinary times, and our civil servants know it. Donald Trump’s aggressive executive orders will put contemporary standards of federalism to the test, forcing state and local executives to evaluate how far they can go to resist his more controversial orders. Police departments and police officers, for example, must decide how stringently to obey Trump’s strict immigration orders. In many areas, state and local officials have used their own discretion on controversial issues in order to pursue optimal results.

Mayors, sheriffs, and police chiefs have often turned a “blind eye” to illegal immigration in order to have better working relationships with the Hispanic and immigrant communities in their respective cities.  These so-called “sanctuary cities” have been criticized by Donald Trump and other conservatives for allegedly flouting the law and tacitly encouraging criminality. Proponents argue that it is necessary for state and local leaders to “give a little” to “get a lot” in terms of cooperation from the community, allowing police to solve crimes and receive tips of impending problems.

The firm “my way or the highway” stance by President Trump, exemplified by Sally Yates’ abrupt dismissal, puts street-level bureaucrats at all levels of government (local, state, and federal) in the agonizing position of choosing between keeping their jobs today or risking losing their effectiveness tomorrow. If they choose to follow Trump’s letter of the law, but lose their effectiveness due to losing their discretion, will Trump make sure their jobs are protected? The fear is that civil servants will be punished later for following the new rules today, accused of incompetence because Donald Trump’s executive orders are flawed and ineffectual.