Approximately 180 federal employees have enrolled in an upcoming workshop this weekend to discuss the ways in which they can resist President Donald Trump’s agenda and practice civil disobedience. The only problem? Engaging in “civil disobedience” could get them fired.
Dozens of these civil servants already attended a workshop last weekend at a church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and many more have asked former President Obama’s political appointees for advice, according to a report from The Washington Post. And now with 180 of them signed up for “civil disobedience” lessons next weekend, it looks like Trump may have to deal with mounting insubordination from career federal employees after less than two weeks in office.
“If they want to have public discourse outside of their jobs about policy or politics, they can do that. What they cannot do is be engaged in partisan politics on the job and they cannot refuse to do their jobs.”
“You’re going to see the bureaucrats using time to their advantage,” an anonymous employee with the Justice Department told The Post, adding that “people here will resist and push back against orders they find unconscionable.”
But these career civil servants and political appointees may be treading on treacherous ground, depending on how they define “civil disobedience.”
“The president did not start this fight,” Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in the Reagan administration, told LifeZette. “These people have started a fight claiming they are going to engage in civil disobedience without describing what that means.”
DiGenova noted that these federal employees are trying to make “civil disobedience sound like something involving Henry David Thoreau sitting up in some tree,” in reference to the essay Thoreau published in 1849 detailing how to resist an unjust government.
“Civil disobedience in the context in which they are using it means that they are not going to do their jobs,” diGenova said. “If that’s what they mean, then they don’t have to be paid or they can be fired. They do not have the right to resist by not doing their jobs.”
These federal employees are most likely feeling emboldened to follow in the footsteps of Obama appointee Sally Yates — the acting attorney general Trump fired Monday evening for refusing to enforce Trump’s travel ban executive order.
But Yates was a political appointee, who had been placed in her post by a Democratic president. Civil servants are governed by an entirely different set of standards and removing them is exceedingly difficult. But there are several ways Trump and his administration can deal with rogue federal workers.
“I don’t think the Trump people are interested in punishing anybody. I think the Trump people want to get things going and getting done,” diGenova said. “And if people don’t want, don’t like the policies, don’t want to implement them, then they should resign and go to work elsewhere.”
That sentiment echoed White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who Monday told insubordinate federal workers: “either get with the program” or “go.”
One action that House Republicans have floated to tame a rebellious bureaucracy is reinstating the Holman Rule. The Holman Rule allows Congress to reduce civil servants’ salaries, as well as reassign or, in some cases, eliminate their positions.
Other methods currently exist, as well.
“They can be fired. They can be fired through a process. They can be suspended. They can be suspended with pay. They can be told they’re not to do certain things. There’s a whole series of ways to deal with them. But the issue is what are they doing?” diGenova said. “The minute they refuse to do the work that they are being paid for, they can be fired. And then they can litigate their firing over the next five years.”
As The Post notes, the “signs of resistance” among federal employees range anywhere from minor grumbling to posting opinions online to making blatant declarations of impending insubordination.
Although civil servants are welcome to harbor their personal opinions and convictions regarding matters of policy, if they allow those factors to influence their actions to the point of shirking their responsibilities and refusing to do their jobs, they are ripe for the chopping block.
"If they want to have public discourse outside of their jobs about policy or politics, they can do that. What they cannot do is be engaged in partisan politics on the job and they cannot refuse to do their jobs," diGenova said. "Their option, their answer, their remedy is to resign and go get a job elsewhere."
As for Yates — an Obama holdover and the Left's new champion of civil disobedience — her actions were particularly egregious, diGenova said, because she acted in direct violation of the judgment doled out upon Trump's travel ban executive order by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department itself.
"So Ms. Yates is just a political hack. I mean, that was grandstanding of the worst kind during a transition. And it was a disgrace to her," diGenova said. "Her conduct was a betrayal of the duties that she had as the acting attorney general of the United States. She wasn't some civil servant who was just a functionary. She was acting on behalf of all the people of the United States and she acted like a political thug."
If civil servants and political appointees aren't too careful, the "civil disobedience" they discuss at these workshops could morph into a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their positions to engage in blatant political activity.
"Now from published reports it appears that many of their leaders have been in direct contract with Democratic Party officials. If that is the case, they are skating very close to Hatch Act violations," diGenova said. "The purpose of their employment for the government is to deliver a public service. If some of them feel compelled to civilly disobey or to resist, as the phrase has now come, they may not do so in the performance of their duties."