IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump zeroes in on a key target of his 'retribution' agenda: Government workers

The former president’s plan to radically change the civil service is causing "anxiety" for career officials, in no small part because it is becoming "basically doctrine" on the right.
Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md.
Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 4.Alex Brandon / AP file

A central part of Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential bid is a promise to dismantle the “deep state.”

“Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” the former president declared in March at his first rally. 

He has also vowed "retribution" for his political enemies, saying that if he gets back into the White House "their reign is over."

Last month, Trump released a list of proposals to take down what many conservatives believe is a secret cabal of government workers who wield enormous power and work against Republicans. Many seemed personal, tied to Trump investigations past and present. They included cracking down on government whistleblowers, making troves of documents public and creating independent auditors to monitor U.S. intelligence agencies.

But it’s the lead proposal that concerns civil servants and excites conservative activists. And it’s something Trump implemented briefly as president.

At the top of Trump’s list is reinstituting an executive order known as “Schedule F,” which would reclassify tens of thousands of federal employees involved in policy decisions as at-will employees. In other words, they would lose their employment protections, and it would be much easier for a president to fire them.

And to give a taste of how the policy might be used, the line immediately following Schedule F is a pledge to “overhaul federal departments and agencies, firing all of the corrupt actors in our National Security and Intelligence apparatus.”

The policy was instituted in the final weeks of the Trump administration but was not fully implemented. This time around, should Trump return to the White House, there would be little delay. 

Yet the embrace of this proposal, or maneuvers like it, extends beyond Trump.

“I think Schedule F is basically doctrine now on the right,” said Russ Vought, an architect of Schedule F when he was Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. “So I think one that sits in that position does not have an ability to not do this, not unlike any other governing philosophy” widely embraced by conservatives.

“Schedule F is getting to the point where I cannot see anyone who runs on the Republican side who doesn’t put this into play,” Vought, the president of the Center for Renewing America, a right-wing think tank, continued.

Indeed, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who polls as Trump’s most formidable potential presidential rival, dedicated space in his recently published political memoir to Schedule F, writing positively about the policy while appearing to mildly criticize Trump for not having instituted it sooner. 

DeSantis, who has long railed against what he sees as excessive bureaucracy, used his executive power in Florida to assert broad authority, be it through his suspension of a state attorney who was reluctant to prosecute abortion-related cases or his efforts to overhaul the state’s higher education system.

“Many had hoped that the administration of Donald Trump would rectify this by implementing a plan known as Schedule F, which would recharacterize about fifty thousand federal employees who are engaged in ‘policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating’ as being effectively at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of the president,” DeSantis wrote. “Thus, the president would be able to terminate federal employees who frustrate his policies, thereby dealing a blow to the idea that the bureaucracy is the fourth branch of government.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, a long-shot GOP presidential candidate, said he wants to go even further than Trump and doesn’t think an executive order is needed to enact his own platform to attack “the deep state,” which includes shutting down and replacing both the FBI and the IRS. Rather than reclassify employees, Ramaswamy said, powers vested in the Constitution and existing statutes can be read in a way that already gives presidents broad authority “to implement this kind of change.”

“I think that you already have that latitude, even without … Schedule F,” he said, describing the executive order as “clever” but “almost too humble in its aims.”

Republican officeholders have long lamented a federal bureaucracy they see as hostile to their initiatives, a feeling that peaked during Trump’s tenure in office. The focus on career officials intensified during the Covid pandemic, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, then the country’s leading expert on viruses, became a boogeyman on the right.

Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to an effective federal government, said such proposals and the broader push among Republicans to fundamentally change how the civil service works are causing “quite a bit of anxiety in the federal workforce and in the broader community of organizations that are focused on trying to help our government work more effectively.”

He added that there is “a lot of uncertainty” about what could be achieved merely through executive action and what would require congressional buy-in.

“The basic issue, really, is a lack of appreciation for how fundamental a professionalized civil service is to good outcomes for the American people,” Stier said.

“The contours are uncertain,” he added. “But there’s certainly real harm that could happen.”

As president, Trump also took dramatic moves to exert power over the civil service. In 2019, his administration decided to relocate the Bureau of Land Management headquarters, telling staff members they had to move to Colorado from Washington, D.C., if they wanted to keep their jobs. More than 87% of the affected employees decided to resign or retire, according to data from The Washington Post. (Stier noted that the vast majority of federal employees already live and work outside the Washington area.)

Recently, Trump has called for all federal employees to “pass a new civil service test” that aligns with his view of how the government should work and “put unelected bureaucrats back in their place.”

Of course, he is also highlighting his agenda to dismantle the “deep state” as he decries “a very dark cloud” of investigations swirling around him. Prosecutors in New York, Atlanta and Washington are examining allegations he tried to cover up hush money payments to women during his 2016 campaign (the basis of his indictment in New York) and overthrow the 2020 presidential election, as well as his handling of classified documents

Trump has also since called for Republicans to “defund” the FBI and the Justice Department.

“The American people should be shocked to learn that a twice impeached, and now indicted, former president is recycling his plans to strip the federal workforce of its independence and reshape the entire federal government into his own personal political machine,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., whose district is home to many federal employees, said in a statement. “Donald Trump doesn’t want a government of, by, and for the people. He wants a government of, by, and for Donald Trump. I led the charge against his original Schedule F proposal and I will continue to fight him every step of the way.”

Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Not all Republicans are aligned with Trump on such issues. Speaking to reporters last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pushed back against Trump’s call to defund federal law enforcement, saying, “We ought to be looking for ways to spend more on law enforcement.” Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, said in an interview that Trump’s policy agenda is “more about getting even with his political enemies than leading our country, which concerns me.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he likes “a heck of a lot of what” Trump is proposing, because “you basically have massive unelected bureaucrats who essentially run the country, and that has got to change.”

But, he added, he would prefer to see Congress enact legislation rather than Trump act purely from executive action should he be elected next year.

It’s “a great conversation to have,” Hawley said. “And I think there’s a lot to like in his proposal. And I think the best thing would be for Congress to get involved to say, ‘Hey, let’s fix this legislatively.’”

On the surface, it’s unlikely such changes could advance through a Senate that requires 60 votes on most legislative efforts. But Vought said much of the agenda can be completed through executive power alone, listing Schedule F, changing declassification standards, the background check process for security clearances or even the review process for employee performance. He said it’s important to understand “the levers that you have that are not legal changes.”

“There’s all sorts of things that you can do without statutory change,” Vought said. “And I think that those are where we should focus on and then you go to Congress and you ask for things that you don’t have.”

Stier emphasized that safeguarding current civil service protections isn’t a partisan issue and that “many, many, many” Republicans are supportive.

“This is based on this really important misconception of this idea that civil servants should be beholden to the current occupant of the White House, as opposed to being there to be the expert, professional supporters of whoever’s elected and ultimately committed to the rule of law and to our Constitution,” he said. “It’s not about loyalty.”