Bureaucrats get a bad rap. A good deal of the responsibility for this falls on Republicans, who love to place the adjective “unelected” right in front while slamming them. Democrats more typically think of such folks as “public servants.” During the Trump administration, there were a number of officials serving in the executive branch whose service to the public went above and beyond.
That’s because those brave bureaucrats had to take measures anyone who serves in government hopes they’ll never have to, and which we’ve never seen officials in any other administration have to do to the same extent. They had to defy the orders and, in some cases, actively thwart the efforts of their ultimate supervisor, the (twice impeached former) president of the United States.
Much of the recent news regarding such Trump-thwarting has revolved around Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But there have been other areas of government where The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It attempted to do wrong and was blocked from within, so to speak. One of the most wide-ranging and long-gestating involved the census.
In September, the American Statistical Association's (ASA) Task Force on 2020 Census Quality released a report saying that, at least based on the information available thus far, the census projections appear to be solid, without "major anomalies that would indicate census numbers are not fit for use for purposes of apportionment."
Now this is a preliminary report, and the ASA acknowledges that it has “insufficient information” to make a fully informed judgment. But for now this is at least good news, especially given the monkey business Trump and his apparatchiks attempted to pull.
Regarding the extensiveness of that monkey business, well, when a bunch of statisticians—generally not the kind of people inclined to employ incendiary language—call you out, that really is saying something. On that front, the task force mentioned three times that they had had concerns about “political interference” that might spoil the data in the end. I’ll wager that’s three more mentions of political interference than have appeared in an ASA report on any previous census. In all seriousness, what the Trumpists tried to get away with was an unconstitutional power grab to politicize an apolitical, constitutionally mandated process in order to reduce the political power of the poor, Americans of color, and in particular immigrants, who were the prime targets of the despicable push to put a citizenship question on the census itself.
In collaboration with Vox, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) produced an in-depth piece detailing these underhanded efforts, which, in addition to the citizenship question, included shutting down the counting of people a number of weeks before the previously published end date—during a pandemic that made census workers’ jobs much harder than anyone expected. The CPI/Vox article emphasized, “The administration made these decisions against the advice of experts and its own career staff at the U.S. Census Bureau, sabotaging local officials’ efforts to improve response rates in communities across the U.S. that have long borne the costs of being undercounted.”
As on so many other issues, Trump’s racist policies represent continuity with prior Republican efforts rather than a break from them. Over the past 40 years, right-wingers have been percolating a plan to use the census to count undocumented immigrants and then exclude them from the population numbers used to apportion congressional districts and the electoral college votes that flow from them. Such a plan violates the clear language of the Constitution that mandates counting “persons” as opposed to citizens. Trump was prevented from asking about citizenship status on the census by the Supreme Court in June 2019.
Additionally, there is evidence that even putting such a question about citizenship on the census would depress response rates among Latinx and Asian Americans in particular, along with members of other vulnerable groups—regardless of their immigration status. Republicans wouldn’t consider that an unfortunate side effect, however. To them, that would be a bonus.
Judge Lina Hidalgo, chief executive of Harris County, Texas—where Houston is located—explained the harm Trump’s efforts on the census would cause: “It’s not good for the country and it’s not good for democracy. Participation is what makes our democracy strong. If people are afraid to get counted in something as basic as the census, of course they’re going to be intimidated to make their voices heard more broadly.”
What about the brave bureaucrats who foiled Trump on the census? They came into play after the highest court blocked the front-door effort to count the undocumented via the census. You see, Trump didn’t give up, he just looked for a back-door way to mess with our democracy and screw brown people.
The asshole-in-chief decided that if he couldn’t directly count the undocumented, he’d just guess at the numbers. Just after the Supreme Court made its ruling, he issued an executive order that directed the Census Bureau to use information gained from state records to estimate how many undocumented immigrants there are. Here’s how one former Trump employee, who had been undocumented during her time working at his New Jersey golf club, responded:
The rub for Donald Dickweed was that he had to rely on other people to carry out the order. Those people are the aforementioned public servants. The bureaucrats.
After losing the election and failing to carry out his Jan. 6 coup, Trump still had two weeks in office, and didn’t give up trying to count undocumented immigrants. Despite frantic efforts by his political lackeys—the ”significant pressure” they were applying was documented by whistleblowers—to produce the numbers he so desperately wanted to be included in the 2020 census, the good guys basically said “er, sorry, not gonna happen.” The whistleblowers’ statements prompted the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) to write a letter to Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, and it wasn’t pretty.
[Census] Bureau staffers said Dillingham had categorized the report as the bureau’s “top priority,” regardless of the data’s accuracy, the letter said, adding: “OIG is also aware that you inquired into a financial reward for speed on this directive.”
One senior bureau employee had gone as far as to say that what staffers were being asked to do was “statistically indefensible,” according to the letter, which gave Dillingham until Thursday [Jan. 16] to respond and warned that OIG might interview him under oath.
At that point, Dillingham finally backed down. On Wednesday, Jan. 15, he said he hadn’t done any of those terrible things, and added that “upon learning of these concerns,” he issued instructions that “those involved should ‘stand down’ and discontinue their data reviews.” Brave bureaucrats—not to mention democracy: 1, Trump: 0.
The aforementioned ASA task force report praised the responses of those public servants who acted after Biden defeated Trump to make sure Fuck a l’Orange was unable to warp the census results just before the buzzer sounded on his presidency: “The bureau appropriately delayed release of data products to ensure careful review and processing of the data according to bureau quality standards.” That’s statistician talk for “thank the Lord those clever mofos put their necks on the line to preserve accurate data.” Ultimately, even if the information produced by the 2020 census turns out in the end to be truly solid, this is by no means a story of all’s well that ends well. But it would have been far worse if not for those courageous public servants.
To be sure, the census was very much not the only area in which Trump tried to wreak havoc but failed because someone who was supposed to carry out his orders had the spine and the conscience to just say no.
As for what Milley did in the incidents that have been in the news so much recently, they are a bit different in that he didn’t defy or ignore direct orders from Trump. Instead, Milley was concerned enough that the insurrectionist-in-chief might do something that would provoke a response from China and start a war as a way to somehow stay in office that he felt the need to take preventive measures. He informed the official who holds the equivalent position in Beijing that in fact, no, the U.S. would not be attacking China. Milley did this just before the election and again just after Jan. 6. He also took other actions that, in short, aimed at ensuring that the guy at the top of the military chain of command didn’t evolve from a metaphorical loose cannon into an actual one.
Republicans are screaming that Milley committed treason, while he has said the calls were “routine” and “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his position. I’d argue it’s somewhere in between. More importantly, the fact that someone in his position felt the need to take those steps tells us everything we need to know about Trump’s fitness to hold the most powerful office in the world.
I wish these were the only two times that required Trump-thwarting—not to suggest that a matter of war and peace and another of subverting democracy aren’t awful enough. Another example starts with Trump’s one-time body man, John McEntee. He’s an enterprising fellow who was fired from that position by then-Chief of Staff John Kelly—the Department of Homeland Security had been investigating him for financial crimes, and there appeared to be a problem with online gambling as well as paying his taxes. Upon his dismissal, McEntee was asked to leave the White House immediately—as in, don’t go back to your desk and get your stuff on the way out, Johnny. Yet less than two years later, he had returned to the White House with a significant promotion. Trump liked him so much that McEntee found himself head of the Presidential Personnel Office—a pretty big job that came to entail getting rid of anyone not sufficiently loyal to his benefactor and boss.
On Nov. 9, 2020, Trump had McEntee deliver a message to Col. Douglas MacGregor, who had literally a few seconds earlier been informed he would have the opportunity to serve as a senior adviser to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller—himself appointed that day to replace the fired Mark Esper. McEntee gave MacGregor a handwritten list for Miller and said: "This is what the president wants you to do."
- Get us out of Afghanistan.
- Get us out of Iraq and Syria.
- Complete the withdrawal from Germany.
- Get us out of Africa.
How do you like your new job, Doug?
In response, MacGregor said that Miller would need a more official order from Trump. That document, bearing the absurd Trump Sharpie signature, arrived on Nov. 11, and this one was a bit more focused. By the end of 2020, all U.S. forces were to leave Somalia, and by Jan. 15, 2021, all U.S. forces were to leave Afghanistan. MacGregor had told McEntee that he didn’t think all four actions on the original note were possible, so this new list represented at least some recognition of that judgment. Either way, the incredibly complicated Afghanistan withdrawal date was barely two months away.
Who had drafted the order? Someone from McEntee’s office—the personnel office, which apparently had evolved into the heart of Trump’s foreign policy brain trust. And how about the process? There had been, as Axios’ Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu noted, “no consultation, no input, no process for gaming out consequences or offering alternatives.” Neither of those Trump orders were carried out in the end thanks to pushback from Miller, the aforementioned Gen. Milley, Trump national security adviser Robert O'Brien, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
At least in that case, Trump actually was convinced to withdraw his order. In other instances, he just seems to have forgotten whatever commandment he issued before moving on to the next item on his busy, executive time-laden schedule. When Trump had an order drafted to pull the U.S. out of our trade agreement with South Korea, National Economic Council Chief Gary Cohn reportedly just swiped it from his desk and it never got signed. Cohn did the same with a document notifying Mexico and Canada that we’d be withdrawing from NAFTA. He apparently told another White House aide who expressed concern about one of the moves, “I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk.”
There have been numerous other reports of Trump administration officials slow-walking or otherwise defying orders, including the efforts described by “Anonymous”, i.e., Miles Taylor, who was then chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security, and spoke of the “resistance” inside the White House. (It’s also worth noting that bureaucrats and whistleblowers played vitally important roles during Trump’s first impeachment trial.) Here’s another account, as reported in a Washington Post article discussing Bob Woodward’s 2018 book, Fear:
“[Trump] would be like, ‘Do this, do that, slap a tariff on this country or that country, let’s blow everything up, let’s go to war,’” a former White House official said. “Then we would come back the next week and Trump would say, ‘What happened with X?’ And he would get mad that no one had done it. And it was a never-ending cycle.”
On another occasion, White House Counsel Don McGahn took a more direct approach. When Trump ordered him to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, he said no and threatened to quit. The Big Bad Bully of Bedminster backed down. On climate as well, career scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration managed to achieve some real, if limited, successes in holding the line against directives that derived from Trumpian climate change denial.
Trump also tried his damnedest to get the Department of Justice to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election—one he’d lost fair and square—by authorizing all kinds of investigations into already debunked or otherwise bogus charges of fraud.
When the people in high positions refused, he decided he’d just get rid of Jeffrey A. Rosen, the acting attorney general of the United States, and put in his place a puppet named Jeffrey Clark, who would do his bidding. That effort culminated in a remarkable Oval Office meeting on Jan. 3, some new details of which are just coming out now, contained in a Senate Judiciary Committee report.
The Orange Julius Caesar had invited the top officials in the Department of Justice and informed them of his scheme. He presented them with a fait accompli. They refused to accept it. They told Trump all of them would resign in a single stroke. Just as impressively, the aforementioned Cipollone once again stepped up, stating that he—along with his lead assistant, Deputy White House Counsel Patrick F. Philbin—would quit as well. Cipollone told his boss that taking such a step would be akin to a “murder-suicide pact.”
The meeting went on three hours before Trump finally gave in and abandoned his plan. Imagine the permanent damage to our democracy if those valiant folks had not done what they did, and he had been able to bring the official weight of the Department of Justice to bear on behalf of The Big Lie. We really might not have been able to stop the steal. CNN.com had the story as its lead article the day it broke, and the headline on their main page called it a “coup attempt.” Whaddaya know, someone in the media actually got one right.
Finally, let’s examine the details of just one more example—one that brings together not only Trump’s hair-trigger attention span, but also his general ignorance about the world and his lack of interest in any consequences that might unfold from him satisfying his whims the instant he feels them.
In April 2017, during a meeting in the Oval Office, Trump and his top national security officials were discussing North Korea. He saw a satellite image showing the whole of the Korean peninsula and suddenly demanded to know, “Why is Seoul so close to the North Korean border?” Trump was frustrated after being told more than once that the U.S. couldn’t simply blow up North Korean nuclear facilities because the regime in Pyongyang could quickly and easily launch attacks that would kill millions in the South Korean capital and the surrounding areas. He then declared that the population of Seoul would simply have to move. He wasn’t joking.
But even if Trump couldn’t make Seoul simply relocate by bellowing about it, the idea of the city’s vulnerability, and how it hamstrung potential American military action, seems to have stuck in his mind—as much as any idea can. After the North conducted tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and of a hydrogen bomb throughout the subsequent months, tensions ratcheted up to an even more dangerous level. While watching Fox News (of course), the former guy heard a retired general talk about how U.S. military personnel in South Korea shouldn’t be accompanied by their loved ones. He then had an epiphany: “I want an evacuation of American civilians from South Korea.” Here’s how The Guardian described what unfolded:
A senior official warned that such an evacuation would be interpreted as a signal that the US was ready to go to war, and would crash the South Korean stock market, but Trump is reported to have ignored the warning, telling his team: “Go do it!” Alarmed Pentagon officials ignored the order, and Trump eventually dropped the idea.
Some of the people cited above were appointed by the president whose efforts they blocked. Others were career civil servants, which means they did not actively choose to work for the president whose orders ended up on their desks. On occasion, elected Republicans also refused to carry out Trump’s orders. We certainly saw that from election officials in various states, most famously Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Even then-Vice President Mike Pence, whose overall record is truly despicable, stood fast in the end—after apparently asking Dan Quayle how to spell potato (yes, Mark Sumner is funnier than I am). Sorry, I meant, whether Pence had any wiggle room on certifying the election. I’m willing to give Pence credit for clearing the admittedly low bar of not destroying our democracy—and being willing to lose a friend over it. Although I think even Pence realizes that’s more of a case of addition by subtraction.
Other than Pence, who actually stuck completely to his prescribed duties on Jan. 6, the other officials mentioned above did in one way or another break the rules of their job by defying their boss, who was (grits his teeth while typing this) the duly elected president. There is a philosophical and moral issue raised by such actions.
On a related note, we certainly know that Republicans are willing to pull all kinds of maneuvers to deny the ability of a legitimately elected Democratic president to fully exercise his power. The name Merrick Garland ring a bell? But what Sen. Mitch McConnell did there is different from executive branch employees taking it upon themselves to decide what a president can and can’t do. I think we can agree that it’s complicated, and that such decisions do cut against the idea of a people electing its own leaders. Saying it’s complicated might seem like a cop-out, but I do believe in nuance when circumstances call for it. These do.
Yes, America has certainly seen courageous public servants before, but no other president has practiced such consistent malfeasance across a wide range of policy areas so as to require this degree of resistance from within his administration. The real matter at hand here is that we had a president who forced these officials into almost impossible choices. Former president Trump prompted them to act against his wishes in order to protect against a potential threat to our national interests, to our constitutional and democratic system of government, or even to the continued existence of our world. It's easy to get lost in a philosophical debate and forget precisely what he did. We must do everything we can to ensure he never gets another opportunity to wield that kind of power.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)