Federal Employees News Digest

All the president’s men

The Trump administration's suspicions of the loyalty, competence and agenda of the career civil service are not new. President Richard Nixon had problems with the FBI and State Department. He also suspected that the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics career staff had its own agenda which including making him look bad. President Lyndon B. Johnson also had issues with the FBI and the Defense establishment. President Kennedy too complained—in private—about the slowness, caution and inflexibility of the bureaucracy.   Jimmy Carter wanted to shake up the top career ranks, creating the Senior Executive Service and trying to eliminate semi-automatic in-grade (WIG) raises which he called "being there" raises because he and others felt all people had to do to get the percent hikes every one, two or three years was show up for work regularly.

Most presidents and top advisors—Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservative—have from time to time railed that they are poorly served, sometimes actually undercut, by the career bureaucracy either over turf, politics or incompetence. They—the suspicious politicians—haven't always been wrong either.   

During the end of the Watergate era, top Nixon appointees at Defense and State secretly agreed to block what they feared might be irrational military actions against Russia, prompted by a paranoid White House. Or to deflect Congress and the public from the (eventually successful) effort to drive him from office.  Start-a-little-war-save-your-job!

Some government old-timers, many of them now retired, believe they are seeing history repeat itself as the White House butts heads with professional civil servants on how to describe and handle the worldwide threat from the coronavirus.

President Trump—a real estate guy turned TV reality star—come in with many suspicions and preconceived notions (again, many of them maybe correct) about government red tape and unresponsive subordinates.  The pre-election, anti-Trump email trail left by two high-ranking Justice-FBI lovebirds—who said they would never let him be elected—was suspicions-confirmed for the Trump team. They also suspected (in some cases still do) actions by career EPA and Interior employees and the quality of intelligence from the CIA and other members of the intelligence community confirmed.

But what is happening (and in some cases what isn't happening) right now may be the most troubling and far reaching rift in a in a long-long time.  And the most concerning to you as a career civil servant as well as to your health and safety, and that of your family, friends and community. Cal you say: Coronavirus?  Is it a dangerous world-wide health threat on a PR problem to be handled to avoid upsetting people, the economy and politicians who want to get elected to stay elected?

What are the dangers of hyping the virus as a pandemic that could kill millions vs. calming people at least until more is known about its real and long-term dangers. 

President Trump is known to skip regular early morning intelligence briefings, and be easily bored by experts who know their stuff but not how to tell it.  Or sell it.  Again, nothing new.

President Nixon whenever possible insisted that briefings and options be limited to one typewritten page.  President Roosevelt (FDR) was said to prefer talking to and questioning authors rather than actually read their book.

Different strokes.

But the importance of the response (or lack of same) to the coronavirus threat may be in a whole new category.

The day after the Super Tuesday vote, when politics dominated the news, The Washington Post gave precious front-page ink to a story headlined:  MESSAGING UNDERMINES U.S. EFFORTS ON VIRUS.  The story, with three reporter bylines, noted that a high-profile career fed shocked, and irked the White House after referring to coronavirus as an outbreak likely to reach pandemic proportions even as the White House was down-playing the threat and saying it was too early to push the panic button.  The fed, who incurred the White House is the highly respected, long-time career director of the National Institute of Allery and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.  He spoke on national TV even as the President and his Coronavirus "czar" Vice president Mike Pence were trying to calm the public, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Wall Street.  Pence, who has expressed doubts about things like evolution, is leading the fight to contain the brand-new, little known virus.

Obviously nobody knows how this will end.  Or when. 

But it would be a shame, maybe a crime, maybe a life and death thing if politicians, left, right or center, try to sweep what is potentially a world-wide threat under the carpet to bolster the stock market.  And not "upset' people on the eve of an election.

 

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