President Trump gestures during a campaign rally on Oct. 29  in Tampa, Fla.

President Trump gestures during a campaign rally on Oct. 29 in Tampa, Fla. Chris O'Meara / AP

Federal Employees Meet to Discuss How They Can Push Back if Trump Refuses to Leave Office

Sick outs and foot dragging highlight tactics employees could consider if Trump blocks a peaceful transition after losing the election.

Your leadership is asking staff to draft false official statements, talking points, communiques, etc. for a foreign or domestic audience saying that Trump won, claiming that protests are violent and illegitimate, uncounted mail-in ballots are fraudulent and that the Democrats are staging a coup. 

What do you do? 

This was one of several hypothetical questions a group of federal employees contemplated Wednesday night during a virtual meeting. The discussion, organized by Feds for Democracy and Democracy Kitchen, centered around the possibility that President Trump will refuse to leave office if he is legitimately defeated in next week’s election. A group of about 150 concerned federal workers met to consider how they, as executive branch workers, can prevent a constitutional crisis. What are federal employees’ responsibilities if Trump stages a “coup” from the inside, they wondered. 

Their ideas centered on mostly mundane acts of symbolic protests, such as wearing non-partisan pins or putting messages like “count every vote” in their email signatures. Organizers of the event, titled “Democracy Defense! Options for Federal Workers,” instructed attendees to consider ways to slow walk instructions coming from political appointees in a scenario in which the administration is denying its defeat at the polls. They repeatedly suggested all attendees ensure that every directive is put in writing, as the feds told their colleagues to “engage in meticulous documentation.” 

“Perform duties at a foot dragging pace,” one organizer said. 

Another said it is acceptable for federal workers to voice moral or legal objections to directives, which can help ensure multiple rounds of reviews for things like new regulations. In some cases, one person offered, it could be warranted to make draft versions of federal documents publicly available so members of Congress or inspectors general can seek to intervene. One of the federal workers implored their colleagues to reject any “loyalty oaths,” noting executive branch employees swear an oath to the Constitution rather than any individual. 

The event was inspired by comments and tweets from Trump, who has at times demurred when asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election. Trump said last month, for example, mail-in ballots are a “disaster,” and states should “get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”  

The event leaders repeatedly cautioned against dramatic action, reminding attendees of their obligations under the Hatch Act that restricts political activity and the dangers of losing their jobs. Federal employees who strike, they noted as an example, immediately surrender their normal rights and protections. Feds can instead use their lunch break to organize and voice personal opinions, they explained. Some workers at the meeting also expressed an interest in joining up to collectively take leave as a show of protest, or to attend demonstrations. They referred to a possible coordination of sick days across workforces as the “Fed Flu.” 

Some of the organizers were more direct. 

“I want to be deliberate and intelligent in stopping this administration, which has gotten progressively worse and dangerous, in its tracks,” the person said. The event was designed to provide “a sense of what feds can do [in the event] that checks and balances have failed,” they added. 

Many of the attendees for the event, which took place over Zoom, opted to remain anonymous and did not turn on their cameras. The organizers, who identified themselves but whose names Government Executive is not publishing to protect them from retaliation, told their colleagues they had a duty to intervene in small ways if the administration does not enable a peaceful transfer of power. 

“We are in roles of power, setting and enforcing rules, holding people accountable to social norms,” one speaker said. “The rest of the country looks to us about what is normal and allowable. We can help shape public opinion on what is right.” 

In an explainer document sent to attendees, Feds for Democracy encouraged its members not to be “ignorant of their power.” 

“As a federal employee or worker that upholds the United States’ democratic institutions, you have incredible power to establish, uphold, and promote democratic norms in the face of a coup, and to carry out the mission of our agencies,” it wrote. “Doing this, though, requires being prepared and knowledgeable about our rights and effective tactics.”

The group shared resources for federal employees, such as whistleblower advocacy groups, tips for protecting personal data and communications and union representation. It encouraged federal employees to showcase the non-partisan nature of their work. 

The attendees briefly discussed a new Trump executive order to politicize the civil service by giving agencies broad discretion in removing large segments of the federal workforce from the competitive service, again encouraging each other to create a paper trail. 

“It’s terrible, it’s horrible in every way,” one organizer said. “We just don’t know how broadly they’re going to attack us.” 

A survey by Government Executive and the Government Business Council last month found former Vice President Joe Biden up 60% to 32% over Trump with federal employees. Federal workers have contributed at least $1.8 million to the two candidates this cycle, according to a Government Executive analysis, with 58% of those dollars going to Biden. 

The leaders, who did not respond to a request for comment, said they hoped to hold more events in the coming weeks.