A spirit of petty vengeance: Trump's desire to purge all Obama appointees could do major damage

Will the government still work on Jan. 21? Trump's scorched-earth approach may have dire consequences

By Gary Legum

Published January 10, 2017 12:59PM (EST)

 (Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)
(Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)

One might think an incoming president would find some middle ground between completely purging the executive branch of the pernicious influence of his predecessor and not crippling the ability of many agencies to function.

Then one remembers the incoming administration will be headed by Donald Trump, who never met a scorched-earth scenario he didn’t want to carry out, when it involves staffing his government or threatening lawsuits against women who have accused him of sexual harassment. And with a team of far-right cronies advising him, he seems poised to rid the executive branch of anyone connected to President Barack Obama the moment he lifts his hand from the Bible.

But for what? What is the reason for leaving crucial posts unfilled for months, thus leaving at least some government workers twiddling their thumbs with no direction for carrying out a new administration’s mission?

It might be something as simple as the fact that Trump, who had no idea what he was getting into when he ran for president, thinks he can replace an ambassador as easily as he can replace a banquet manager at his casino. Or it might be his alpha-male need to assert dominance. What better way to do that than with the governmental equivalent of a corporate takeover?

According to a Monday report, the Trump team demanded the resignation of the two heads of the National Nuclear Security Administration as of Jan. 20, with no nominees waiting in the wings to replace them, and this would be just the latest in a list of examples of the new administration's getting ahead of itself in its zeal to put its stamp on the government. Last week The New York Times reported that Trump has demanded that all ambassadors and envoys appointed by Obama to a foreign country turn in their resignations as of noon on Inauguration Day, leaving some critical foreign embassies without a representative to head them.

It is one thing for small nations without major geopolitical roles to lack an American ambassador for a while. (I suspect Barbados, for example, will manage just fine.) But it is quite another for every ally in a busy geopolitical realm – like, say, all of Europe, Asia and South America – to go without. Traditionally, some ambassadors stay on in their posts for months or even years to soothe the nerves of certain allies and provide a bridge from the old administration to the new one.

This policy is going to be replicated all across the executive branch, where there are somewhere from 3,000 to 4,000 positions that require a presidential appointment, with just more than 1,200 of them needing a Senate confirmation. These positions will take months or even years to fill. And while the agencies and departments will not cease functioning — the work that keeps them humming is done by career civil servants who know their mission better than their eventual bosses — critical government functions still will be harmed.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with an incoming administration being zealous about putting its stamp on government. In practice, however, this will lead to “mission drift” in agencies that are set for radical mission changes under the Trump administration. It could lead to some institutional knowledge being lost in the transition, as Obama appointees disperse and are unavailable to help their successors when they finally start working.

There is a certain pettiness to all of this. As reported by the Times, foreign ambassadors scheduled to leave at the start of a new administration often have their postings extended for a few months to allow their children to finish school. Or take the case of Charles Brotman, the 89-year-old who has served as the official announcer for every inauguration parade since Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1957. Brotman was fired last week, by email, after 11 inaugurations and 60 years, replaced by a local freelancer and Trump supporter who volunteered on the campaign.

For those outside the very small world of inauguration fanatics, this amounts to perhaps a small move but is telling. The animating drive of Trump’s campaign was always revenge — against Obama for telling jokes at his expense at a White House Correspondent’s Dinner, against “elites” who push political correctness, against all the wealthy New Yorkers who have always looked down their noses at the flashy loudmouth from Queens, whom the nation has now seen fit to elect as president.

With an administration like this, one that flows from a campaign based on the idea of a populist revolt, people large and small are going to be trampled on with little thought for the consequences or even for simple human decency. At some point that will happen from policies Trump actually enacts. But first it is happening through personnel moves that seem to be driven by a smallness of spirit that may well be this administration’s defining trait.

Gary Legum

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