S2 E3: The Authoritarian’s Fist

Apr 20, 2023

Imagine a world in which the president had unfettered power to use the massive federal workforce as a weapon against political rivals. In that scenario, federal officials would be forced to serve a political party’s interests instead of the public interest. Your access to federal benefits and services could be slowed or blocked depending on your declared political affiliation. That’s a world that former President Donald Trump tried to make a reality in the final days of his administration.

Exploiting a statutory loophole, Trump issued an executive order in October 2020 that could have made tens of thousands of federal employees, maybe hundreds of thousands, fireable at will by political operatives. Public servants could have faced retaliation if they reported corruption or refused to follow unlawful orders.

President Joe Biden rescinded the executive order before Trump could implement this new system. But the nation isn’t out of the woods. Congress has failed to close the loophole that made this plan possible. And now, there’s a movement to resurrect it and politicize the civil service.

On this episode of The Continuous Action, Virginia Heffernan and Walt Shaub delve into the issue with Rudy Mehrbani, senior director for governance at the Democracy Fund and a former director of the White House’s Office of Presidential Personnel.

The Continuous Action is sponsored by The Project On Government Oversight.

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