Career Federal Employees Ask ‘What Would Make Me Quit?’

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“Every day is a little bit worse,” a career employee at the Department of Homeland ­Security said when we talked in July. And this was before the president was equating white-supremacist demonstrators with those protesting against them and threatening volatile dictators with the possibility of military action. “But I can’t just say ‘Fuck off’ and leave,” the federal worker added. “I have a mortgage.” That reality is but one dilemma for the nonpolitical civil servant seven months into this divisive administration. Before Trump’s inauguration, there were estimates that a quarter or even a third of the career workers in federal agencies were likely to quit in protest. But so far, there’s been no mass defection. In part, it’s because most federal workers, at least the ones who aren’t political appointees, expect to work for presidents of both parties. At the same time, this administration has forced even those who see their work as a calling to contemplate what would make their jobs untenable. In other words, what’s their redline? What if you’re doing good work in your department but are appalled by actions in other areas? Are you still complicit? What if instead of being engaged in some dramatic, obvious wrongdoing, your department is simply deprived of oxygen? Over the past few months, I sought out a number of these disgruntled workers to pose those questions. Their answers, all given under the strict condition of anonymity, add up to a far-ranging examination of what it means to be a public servant.

“If you remove people’s purpose, they’re not going to be able to function.”

DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY | Over 5 Years

“By the right, I feel like we’re being made out to be this monolith of incompe­tence, and on the left we’re seen as this potential bastion of resistance. And, you know, most of the people I work with are just, day to day, trying to make the best decisions on behalf of the American people. That’s not always a clear thing, and we’re not always going to get it right. But we’re trying.

I’m a dedicated civil servant. This is what I wanted to do. I marched in the Women’s March, and I didn’t vote for Trump. But I can work with people I don’t agree with if they’re people of principle. But there’s no principle here. I don’t know what the fuck they’re employing, but it’s not principle. We talk about anger in the resistance, but the sentiment that most of my colleagues and I are feeling isn’t anger. It’s not a hot emotion. It’s sorrow. It’s like this low-grade depression. If you remove people’s purpose, they’re not going to be able to function.

In the previous administration, and I’m not saying they were perfect at this, but there was generally a sense that you have to bring stakeholders with you when you’re making drastic changes. This admini­stration — it’s like they don’t follow things through to their logical conclusion. When the travel ban happened the first time [in January], people in the media were saying, “This was Bannon’s master plan. He wanted to create chaos.” That’s giving these people entirely too much credit. They didn’t think it through. They might as well have just taken construction paper and a crayon and written I HATE MUSLIMS, STAY OUT — DONALD J. TRUMP. The way it’s written is so stupid. I guess that’s their saving grace, to a certain extent: They’re just too dumb to be efficient. Or they just don’t understand enough. So God help us when they start to figure things out.

The point is, they don’t ask the people who have been in these roles to help. They don’t trust anyone. There’s infighting between the former Bush appointees, the sort of normal Republicans, and the Trump-campaign folks who have been appointed. Luckily, in our department, the Establishment Republicans are winning out. But conversations that I’ve overheard make me suspect that most of these people are waiting for Trump to totally explode, and they’re really excited about a Pence presidency.

I work on cybersecurity issues. A lot of the people who are career staffers stayed in their roles in cybersecurity. In terms of people doing the work, day to day, I think we’re in good shape. Now with Kelly leaving to become chief of staff, they’re going to name someone else as DHS secretary. So we’re in a holding pattern. And in cybersecurity you can’t afford to waste time. The threat is constantly changing and evolving. You add to that a White House that doesn’t understand, or that wants to actively stymie [us], and we’re going to lose more and more time. That’s my concern. I also worry that if they are denying what Russia did, if we can’t even be honest about what happened, how can we fix it?

The biggest loss here is the opportunity to educate regular Americans about what’s at stake with cybersecurity. We do all these cyberhygiene campaigns, like “Protect your passwords!” But what we don’t talk about, because it scares the crap out of people, is that cybersecurity enables our critical infrastructure. That could be the elections, or it could be the electricity grid, or it could be water safety. I’m not just talking about Grandma’s credit card getting stolen. I’m talking about somebody opening the floodgates at your local reservoir.

I stayed on for a variety of reasons. One is that I have student loans, and hopefully they’re going to be forgiven after ten years of public service. But also because both of my parents are public servants, and I feel called to be one too — to protect people. I didn’t go into the military, so this is how I do it.

My redline probably wouldn’t be anything in my actual portfolio area. It would be if I were asked to do something that would hurt a group based on race, religion, gender, or sexual identity. The stuff during the ban—that was really hard. I considered quitting during that time, but it got shut down so quickly, so I felt like, Okay, I don’t need to leave. But this “Countering Violent Extremism” task force: If it starts turning into anti-Muslim bullshit, or I’m asked to basically align against Muslim organiza­tions just because they’re Muslim — it would be something like that.

I don’t necessarily like the language of resistance. I’m not the kind of person who says, “Not my president.” He is my president. In a democracy, sometimes the problem is that the other guy wins. I’m hoping that as we move along, the Trump­ian faction will get more margin­alized and we’ll move into what is just a conser­vative regime, but not a batshit-crazy one.

“There’s open crying sometimes.”

Environmental Protection Agency, Regional Office | 9 years

“I started near the end of the Bush administration. At first I was doing Clean Air Act enforcement, and there was definitely a feeling of freedom when Obama took over. You could actually use the words climate change.
Before, and again now, we have to kind of disguise it. You have to just refer to actual contaminants, like methane or something. We’re also disguising it under terms like resiliency.

I was just in a meeting about a research study on wastewater and greenhouse-gas emissions from landfills. Now they have to take out the greenhouse-gas portion in order for it to get approved. The local managers don’t want to bring negative attention to their programs. There’s definitely a feeling that this administration is vindictive, and if something comes to their attention, they will pursue it.

I was going to give a talk on climate change and health effects around Earth Day to a community college. I had agreed to it before the administration change. After the change, they said, “You can’t do any public-facing events on climate change. Or they have to be vetted through headquarters.” So I changed the name of my talk, but I still did it. It was risky in terms of the administration finding out, yes, but more so because the audience tried to really dig into me. “We pay your salary! How can you be here and talk about climate change while they’re doing this other stuff?” I had to defend myself.

Now I’m really cautious. What my legal department told me is that if there happens to be a reporter there and I’m speaking openly about climate change and it goes against what the new administration is saying, that could affect my job. I don’t know whether I can get fired just for talking about science, but I guess it’s possible.

We were terrified when Scott Pruitt was nom­inated. He seemed to be somebody who under­stood the legal underpinnings of our work and the ways to legally unbind it. He’s competent in the wrong ways. The only thing that was really a blow to my work was a ruling on a pesticide that affects brain development in children. Pruitt came out and said that they would not ban it completely. It’s devastating to me.

There’s open crying sometimes. The day of the signing of the executive order to look at rolling back climate-change regulations — the one they did at the EPA with the coal miners onstage — there were actual tears in the office. We all watched that together. Anytime there’s a big visit from a president or anyone like that to the EPA offices, it’s broadcast to the big conference rooms. There were people silently giving the finger, but nobody was shouting obscenities. Maybe whispering them.

Some days I feel like it’s my duty to stay. I talk to friends who say, “You’re someone who cares. You have to stay. If you leave, they win.” But when I have to do something like defend the agency’s position on this pesticide decision, it eats me up inside. It’s only going to get worse, I think, as they appoint more political appointees. Some people say, “Oh, none of it’s really going to happen; the budget cuts aren’t going to be that bad; he’ll get impeached.” But I don’t think so. I think we’re in for at least four years of this. Plus, I’m in the prime of my career, and to waste four years of it is not something I’m interested in doing. I really love my job, and I thought I would just stay. But now that I’ve started interviewing for stuff, it just feels like if I don’t really sell myself and get out sooner rather than later, I might be stuck.

“If we started building a wall with Mexico, is that worth quitting over?”

State Department, Human Rights | Over 5 Years

“When I explain our agenda to people at the White House, the first question is always “Why is this important for America?” That’s an “America First” question. The second question is “How does this impact our national security?” And then the third question is “How does this affect our economic interests?” Those are the three main frames through which we’re all being asked to justify the issues we work on — which is fine. It’s workable. When everyone says we’re a hotbed of resistance, I don’t see it like that. We are bending over backward to explain and justify the value of the work we do.

On our side, there’s no trust in the secretary of State, because we don’t have any idea what he’s thinking. It feels like we have been left to stagnate. For a while, there was a debate about whether this was due to ineptness or to malevolence. The debate still rages, but honestly, I lean toward thinking this must be a deliberate, slow asphyxiation of the State Department. My theory is, Rex Tillerson does not want to fill any of the senior positions because there will be much less bureaucratic resistance to a massive reorganization if there are fewer empowered principals in place to fight for their own bureaucratic turf.

In terms of some big bright redline that would inspire me to leave, I put a lot of thought into it right after the election and joined this salon with some other federal employees. A couple different ethical quandaries came up. One is, what if the administration does something that you personally view as a complete ethical travesty, but it’s not an issue that you have any sway over? For me, that would be something like if we started building a wall with Mexico; is that worth quitting over? Or is it better to say, “I’m still able to do good work on these different sets of issues”? It’s an impossible question to answer.

As for international-justice issues, I think a redline would be if we really decided to ignore bad guys being bad, if we had just come out and said, “You know what? Assad is a mass murderer to the degree of Hitler and Stalin, but, eh, we’re okay with that, and in the interests of a certain policy we’ll just try and forget about it completely.” That would’ve just been unconscionable to me.

David Luban wrote some very good articles about this moral quandary, and one of them that stuck with a lot of us was the example of the bureaucrat lawyer for the Nazis who thought that he could do more good by staying and trying to soften their racial laws than by quitting and leaving. It was provided as an example of the moral slippery slope and the pernicious logic that would face bureaucrats.

But I found that less useful in practice than I thought I would. You have all these vivid analogies of what happens when the worst comes down, but the day-to-day drudgery of federal life is much more mundane than that.
Maybe it’s a creeping sense of dread, and before you know it, you’ve become fully infected with some virus and you’re an agent of some disease. But I think for most of us, it’s just this sense that we don’t even have a chance to explain why things would be better for America if they did them a certain way. There’s such distrust and deliberate alienation of the expertise from the politicos. That’s how they’re going to kill us. You can’t make a dramatic decision or exit in that situation; you just stay and slowly die, or you leave by walking away from the wreckage of a deliberately sunken ship.

“Morale is pretty good.”

Department of Defense | 8 Months

“I work on how we fight wars. Counterterrorism, basically. After the election, I started to get together with a lot of people who were also in the government and talk through “What are the things that I really need to look out for?” The quote of the day was “Stay until the day you can’t.”

I’m a huge proponent for the liberal global order that we helped create after World War II. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations, alliances like NATO. I look down 10, 20, 50 years from now and see the harm that Trump’s rhetoric and policies are causing — those things make me question, Oh, God, am I part of that? Am I an accomplice to this terrible thing that’s happening?

And yet, working within the Pentagon, things are pretty much going as normal. And that’s where the line is for me. I think if I were part of the EPA, I would have quit already. If I were a part of a particular policy at the State Department, I would have had to quit. At the Pentagon … I didn’t necessarily agree with all of Obama’s policies on how we were going to fight wars and where his priorities were. So it’s sort of a little bit of the same. If I were to set redlines, I’d say that if we were going to violate international law, I’d be out of there.

Morale is pretty good, because the military is getting more money. My sense is that a lot of the military felt very constrained under President Obama, and now they’re the apple of Trump’s eye. They also have really good leadership. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, Mattis and Dunford are two remarkable leaders who are very much in the center, who really do not engage in politics. Everyone feels like they’ve got two dads looking out for them. I mean, I’m a progressive, and I very much respect both of them.

The thing is, I also served in the Clinton administration, back when it was Bill; you don’t always agree with what the president says or with his policies. It’s just that this is so not normal. It’s not dithering around about a Burundi policy or how much should NATO pay into the system. This is large-scale change. Even just the speech in Poland played exactly into ISIS’s hands. It’s the West against the rest. So we’re going to go fight this big war against ISIS, but he’s undermining it by making their own narrative stronger.

We’re missing leadership on the civilian policy side, and that’s critical, because they’re the ones that oversee the military operations and make sure that when we fight, we fight like America and not like Russia. Meanwhile, the military is fully staffed up, and so we look like a very militant nation around the world. There’s all this rhetoric about how there are no military solutions, but all the world sees is our military.

“What do you do if the president tells you to do something unconstitutional?”

Department of the Interior, National Park Service | 11 years

“I’m in a very fortunate position within DOI. The National Park Service is beloved. We’re not nearly as subject to direct attack as people working in, say, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the responsi­bility of administering the Endangered Species Act, or the folks at the Bureau of Land Management, who are being directed to open lands to drilling and oil and mineral extraction. So in that sense I feel very fortunate. But that’s sick! The fact that I’m like, Oh, well, we aren’t the targets of this political vitriol. What a thing to be grateful for!

There is nothing that will make me leave this agency voluntarily. There are things that, if asked to do — or, more accurately, not to do — I will continue doing, even if it means getting fired. If I am asked to lie about scientific knowledge, about climate change, or other immediate threats to national parks, I will not obey that gag order. I haven’t seen any of that yet. Right around the inauguration, the National Park Service was very much in the attention of the media, and especially the Twitterverse, because of social-media-related controversies. The agency was briefly put on a social-media time-out. So that got everybody thinking, What do we do if we’re told that we can’t talk about climate change? What if we’re told we can’t talk about outside industrial impacts on public lands? Things like pollution, light pollution, noise impact. I believe in the office of the presidency. When you become a government employee, you take an oath of service. You swear that you will uphold the Constitution. What do you do if the president tells you to do something unconstitutional? I’ve never had to think about that before! Now I think about it. And it stresses me out.

The things Trump is doing will have lasting effects, but it has also been apparent, over the last several months, how long it really takes to change the course of government. I’ve had so many career frustrations with that in the past. There are things that I see us not doing well, and I would like to see a quick fix. But this has made me appreciate the benefit of a vast ship of bureaucracy. When a president signs an executive order, it can take years to figure out how to implement it. During that time, there’s hope that checks and balances will kick in, that the Judicial branch will do its job of identifying the things that are blatantly unconsti­tutional and stop them from happening.

“I’m just trying to help my people.”

Veterans Affairs | 10 years

“I’m an army veteran, so I’ve used the services, too. I’ve been on both sides. I joined VA because I did not like the way VA was talking to veterans. There are people crying out — people who have some seriously fucked-up issues. In my little role, I’ve been able to help people. Every now and then, I’ve reached somebody in a way that’s literally changed their life. The mission is to care for him who has borne the battle — and his widow and his orphan. I am the population. I’m just trying to help my people.

This wouldn’t exactly be my redline, but a few months ago, there was a budget proposal where VA was considering getting rid of individual unemployability benefits for Social Security–age veterans. It would reduce their payments from over $3,000 a month to as little as a few hundred. It would directly hurt a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to make up that income. They would lose their homes. A bunch of the veterans’ service organizations pitched a fit and were successful at getting the department to walk it back. Those cuts are no longer being considered. But you can see where I’m going with this: It’s something my employer was considering doing, and it would directly harm veterans. Vets would come to me and I would have to not necessarily defend it but to explain it. I don’t know that I could do that.

“When a bomb goes off, do we create a Muslim registry?”

Department of Homeland Security | Over 5 Years

“Over the last few months, I’ve seen a tremendous change in tone from DHS leadership. One instance is ice is running amok. They’re essentially like a paramilitary force, and they don’t appear to be really controlled very much by headquarters. ice terrifies me. They’re stopping buses; they’re holding foreign nationals without telling them where they are, without papers. It’s potentially illegal what they’re doing. We got emails from John Kelly, when he was the DHS secretary, and the tone was essentially, “You never apologize for the job you’re doing, because you’re protecting American citizens.” And Kelly and Mattis were supposed to be the good ones!

We have a very noble mission, I think, to protect the homeland. We do that through lots of means. But DHS now just treats everyone like colonels. Everyone says that if you work for a DHS agency, your budget doesn’t get cut, but that’s factually incorrect. They’re proposing that the Coast Guard budget get cut by 13 percent. All the money is going toward the line item “Border Wall.” They’re also ramping up the hiring for Border Patrol agents while taking state-preparedness grants away.

The low point for me came when I heard they were nominating Sheriff David Clarke. They offered it to him, and he turned it down. So we’re going to hire, for the Department of Homeland Security for law-enforcement liaison, a cop with multiple lawsuits against him for essentially killing people in his prison?

What separates this country from the ones that fall apart when there’s an election you don’t like is a strong, apolitical civil service. Someone can’t turn the government on a dime. The bureaucracy is there for a reason. Something that’s certainly picked up in the last six months is this stigma that civil servants are lazy and they’re takers. I could make more in the private sector tomorrow. Most people I work with have master’s degrees, if not Ph.D.’s. We’re very highly educated and very highly motivated. The reason I’m sticking with it right now is — who takes it over when I leave?

One redline for me would be if DHS starts registering or detaining Muslims. Something’s going to happen in this country; it’s just a matter of time. What happens when the bomb goes off? Do we create a Muslim registry? Do we set up Muslim internment camps? That’s not all that far-fetched. Another one I’d probably get fired for is if the president were to not accept disaster declarations for sanctuary cities. They’re saying they’ll withhold all federal funds, so …

But it’s hard, because I have a mortgage. You don’t get into government work to get rich — it’s a comfortable lifestyle — but I can’t just say “Fuck off” and leave.

“The people who are really passionate will end up leaving.”

State Department | over 5 years

“I thought a lot, before January 20, about whether I was going to stay. And I boiled it down, essentially, to three questions. First, can I do my job and can I do good? Question No. 2: Can I do more good on the inside or on the outside? And the third thing is: What is your redline? What is the moment where you no longer feel that you can do your job, because you do feel complicit? And it’s a really hard thing to define when the person who is in the Oval Office got there after tapes surfaced of him saying, “I moved on her like a bitch.” I mean, our redline has to be so red, and so bright, and so thick if that’s not the starting point. There are no words to describe how I feel about that statement — as a woman, as a mom, as someone who feels that everybody deserves respect. But I reasoned that you don’t serve a particular administration. You serve America.

But then there were two specific things he did, that I had to be a part of, that … that broke my heart. To talk about them specifically would pretty much identify me. So I’m leaving and going to an organization that works on those very things in a proactive way.

The New York Times characterized the State Department as a “hotbed of resistance,” and it’s just simply not true. The people who are in the news, such as David Rank and Tom Countryman, these are people who are leaving. These are not the people who are here. I think what you’ll end up seeing is that the people who are really passionate, or who want to push back on some of these administration policies, will end up leaving. And then you’re sort of left with folks who are not the hotbed of resistance.

On the other hand, the job market in D.C. is brutal, and people can’t just walk out and not have a way to pay their mortgage. Other than the three questions I raised, there are very basic human questions: How do I take care of my family before I walk out?

I hope to return in three and a half years. I know it sounds hokey, but there is truly no bigger honor than walking into a bilateral meeting with another country or into the United Nations, and saying, “This is what the United States cares about. We care about human rights. We care about LGBT rights. We care that people not be brutalized. We care about journalist safety. And we’re going to walk the walk and talk the talk.” There’s truly no greater privilege. I’ve lived in other places in the world, and when we are acting with our values, we are truly a remarkable nation. Sorry, I’m getting a little choked up. I hope to work for a president who cares about those values again.

*This article appears in the August 21, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The executive order restricting immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. John Kelly, Trump’s original DHS secretary, was appointed as the White House chief of staff in July. A program Obama started to root out terrorism threats within the U.S.
Trump wants it to focus only on Islamic terrorism, to the exclusion of neo-Nazis and other violent groups.
Trump’s EPA administrator, who sued the agency 14 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general. In March, Trump ordered the repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have likely closed dozens of coal-fired power plants. Law and philosophy professor at Georgetown University who co-founded the website Just Security. James Mattis, the secretary of Defense, and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both had distinguished careers in the Marine Corps. Trump gave an apocalyptic speech last month amid a conference of inter­national leaders in Warsaw. “The funda­mental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” he said, pointing to threats from bureaucracy and Islamic terrorism. The sheriff of Milwaukee was offered the job in May. Numerous people have died in jail under his tenure, including a baby and a mentally ill man who was deprived of water for a week. The U.S.’s top diplomat in China who quit in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Career foreign-service officer, most recently in charge of arms control, who was asked by the Trump administra­tion to leave his post.
Career Federal Employees Ask ‘What Would Make Me Quit?’