WASHINGTON, United States of America – A funereal atmosphere has taken hold in government offices in the U.S. capital, where numerous federal employees describe mournful, even tearful, scenes among dejected co-workers commiserating about Donald Trump’s impending presidency.
Employees — speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals — shared anecdotes about the sorrowful reaction in multiple departments to Trump’s win last month, and their own feelings about what comes next.
One employee said she’d cried on her way to work that morning — and wasn’t the only one weeping in her office.
“I have seen so many tears. From the top down,” said the woman, who works on international initiatives and fears the incoming president’s derisive cracks about foreign nation-building mean the U.S. might scale down its foreign engagement.
“I’ve seen supervisors addressing staff — crying…. It’s their life’s work. It’s really demoralizing.”
Antipathy to the incoming president in the left-leaning national capital is no secret. Trump got just four per cent of the vote in Washington, D.C. Yet that’s worse than usual for a Republican — in fact, it’s the worst result for any since the district got voting rights in 1964.
There are now internal debates about how to proceed.
The employees who will have to execute the president’s orders are having office discussions about staying or leaving government; how to respond to an unethical demand; and whether it’s moral or even technically possible to thwart what they consider bad ideas.
A man who works in foreign affairs says federal employees are sworn to uphold the Constitution. He said everyone around him is unhappy. But if the democratically elected government asks employees to carry out constitutional orders they have two choices: “You execute. Or you leave.”
However, some suggest there’s actually a middle-of-the-road, third option historically favoured by skeptical bureaucrats: Execute, but very slowly.
Someone who works on climate policy says he’s heard people wonder whether Trump’s agenda might be stymied for a year. Then governing activity slows down in a midterm election year. Finally, the president starts worrying about his own re-election.
“People are already talking about that,” he said.
He likened the post-election mood in his office to that of a “funeral home.” In three words, he summarized the skepticism of government energy experts regarding Trump’s promises to out-of-work coal miners in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia — that he’d restore their jobs, in the face of global trends toward cheaper, cleaner natural gas and green technologies.
“It’s a crock,” he said.
Apparently expecting such institutional resistance, the incoming administration has reportedly demanded the names of employees in the Department of Energy who helped design the Obama administration’s climate policies.
The new administration has numerous levers to enforce its will.
That’s always true in the U.S. executive branch, more so than in most countries following a change in government. When a new government takes office in Canada, for instance, the staff might change in ministers’ offices, and perhaps also at the highest ranks of the public service.
But in the U.S. there are thousands of personnel changes.
The new president gets to pick his people far beyond cabinet members’ offices, and into the top three or four ranks of the civil service in every department — meaning career bureaucrats will report to Trump political appointees, who report to other political appointees, and then others still, and they report to the cabinet.
One employee described the senior-most bureaucrats in her department, almost like a protective wall: “That’s your buffer.”
Lots of career plans are now being second-guessed.
One man said he wasted no time applying for a job outside government. He did it on election night, before going to bed. One woman said she’s now a little worried about representing the U.S. abroad, concerned about anti-American hostility.
If the president issues unconstitutional orders, she’s heard colleagues determined to thwart them. Like the Muslim ban Trump floated during the campaign, for instance. She said colleagues talk about volunteering to implement the policy — and doing their job very, very slowly.
Some colleagues worry about being fired less than others, she said. It depends largely on their own financial or family circumstances.
“In my case I could just be like, ‘Screw you. Kick me out. I’ll be OK,'” she said.
She said longtime employees of her department hadn’t seen such a sombre mood since 9/11: “It felt like a funeral (after the election). People were hugging, crying. It was weird — in a professional setting.”
There’s also consternation in the security apparatus.
One employee declined to discuss his office; he did note that 50 former national-security officials who worked for Republican administrations expressed alarm about Trump in a public letter last summer.
In that letter, they said a president should seek knowledge, control his emotions, value constitutional freedoms, acknowledge mistakes, and listen to conflicting views.
“In our judgment, Mr. Trump has none of these critical qualities,” said the letter. “He would be the most reckless president in American history.”
One employee said appointing Mitt Romney as secretary of state might quell some concern — she called him a sensible person. Still, she said, nobody she knows is enthusiastic: “Everyone’s alarmed. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, this is gonna be all right.'”
Another employee suggested otherwise.
He said he’s seen one pocket of Trump support within government — among uniformed military. From the sound of it, he’s not quite marching with them. In describing Trump supporters, he said: “There are meatheads everywhere.”