President Donald Trump spent the bulk of his first State of the Union address touting his tax policy and laying out an immigration proposal that would advance many white nationalist organizations’ top priorities.
Buried within the speech, however, was a proposal that would fundamentally rework the balance of power between civil servants and political appointees — and strike a deep blow to the rule of law in the process.
“I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers,” Trump said, “and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
On the surface, this proposal may seem benign — who doesn’t want public employees who “fail the American people” to be removed? But laws protecting civil servants against politically motivated firings are one of the foundations of liberal democracy.
They are what enable a prosecutor ordered to bring frivolous charges against the president’s political rivals to say no.
They are what permit investigators to target people suspected of genuine legal violations, not companies that compete with the president’s businesses.
They enable environmental regulators to tell the presidents’ appointees that they must obey the Clean Air Act. They empower Labor Department officials to target employers who give generously to the president’s party. They ensure that Medicaid benefits are still paid out to populations the president disapproves of.
Under current law, most civil servants may not be fired without “good cause” once they have served for a three-year probationary period. Protections like these are what prevents Trump from firing every civil servant who refuses to obey an illegal order.
And now Trump wants to eliminate this shield against unchecked presidential power.