If Trump Is Reelected, His Aides Are Planning to Purge the Civil Service
Officials are looking to revive a controversial order issued in Trump's waning days and have already identified 50,000 federal positions to target.
Former aides close to President Trump are working to revive and expand his signature proposal to upend the federal civil service, according to a new report, and are working in conjunction with the former commander in chief to quickly purge thousands of federal employees if he were to return to office.
The plan, as detailed to Axios and confirmed by Government Executive, would bring back Schedule F, a workforce initiative Trump pushed in the 11th hour of his term to politicize the federal bureaucracy. The former officials and current confidantes are, through a network of Trump-loyal think tanks and public policy organizations, creating lists of names to supplant existing civil servants. They have identified 50,000 current employees that could be dismissed under the new authority they seek to create, Axios reported and Government Executive confirmed, though they hope to only actually fire a fraction of that total and hope the resulting “chilling effect” will cause the rest to fall in line.
In October 2020, just before the presidential election, Trump signed his controversial executive order creating a new class of federal employees excepted from the competitive service. The order sought to remove career federal workers in “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating” jobs from the General Schedule into a new job classification where virtually all of their civil service protections were absent, essentially making them at-will employees. Although the Trump administration began efforts to reclassify jobs into the new Schedule F, they ultimately were unable to move any workers before January 2021, and President Biden quickly signed an executive order rescinding the edict as one of his first acts as president.
The former Trump administration officials envision quickly shifting many employees under the new classification, making those positions eligible for quick hiring and firing without the normal protections afforded to civil servants. The new flexibility would allow a future Trump administration to get rid of any employees it deems as standing in the way of implementing its agenda and replace them with loyalists.
“It literally takes five minutes to reissue it,” a former Trump administration official involved in personnel policy and current talks about Schedule F’s revival told Government Executive. “There was real value to issuing Schedule F because it turned it into a ‘flip the switch’ thing for the next administration that wants to do it.”
The original Schedule F order faced widespread condemnation from lawmakers—including members of both parties—good government groups, unions, employees and former government officials.
Just last week, the House adopted an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill for 2023 that would prevent future administrations from reviving Schedule F or anything like it. The provision would bar any president from unilaterally creating a new schedule within the excepted service, effectively forcing the executive branch to request that Congress make any additions via legislation. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who has spearheaded the fight against Schedule F since Trump first introduced it and wrote the bipartisan defense bill amendment, said his measure would preserve “the expertise, and non-political loyalty, of our workforce.”
“The danger remains, however, that a future president could attempt to erode our merit system principles, over 140 years old, by resurrecting something similar to Schedule F,” Connolly said on the House floor. “This amendment preserves congressional roles and prerogatives in determining which federal employees are vested with civil service protections and which are not.”
The entire defense bill will undergo significant changes as it works its way through the Senate, so the inclusion of Connolly’s amendment in the final package is far from guaranteed. While the provision was introduced with a Republican cosponsor, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., it passed with only five Republicans supporting it and 201 in opposition.
The former Trump official who has helped think through how to most effectively reinstate the policy said such an outcome was not necessarily dependent on Trump winning back office, noting someone like Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., could also implement it.
“Everyone we’ve talked to on our side loves it,” the official said. “I have not heard anyone on our side say anything other than, ‘That’s fantastic.’”
If the proposal were to be realized, the Trump—or another Republican—administration would face obstacles in carrying it out. Jacque Simon, director of public policy of the American Federation of Government Employees, said her union would seek to block the order in court.
“Would we challenge it legally if it comes to pass? Of course we would,” Simon said, adding such action would be contingent upon an AFGE member first having standing to sue.
The National Treasury Employees Union launched a lawsuit over the original Schedule F, but it was dismissed after Biden rescinded the order. Previous legislative efforts to block the policy similarly fizzled out without action.
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a good government group that typically works in close coordination with each administration on personnel issues and training, said the ideas being discussed by the Trump orbit go beyond Schedule F and represent a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the purpose of a professionalized civil service. He suggested that everyone, regardless of their policy preferences, should recognize the threat of the proposals.
Carrying out the policies of any president “depends upon a highly capable, professional workforce [and] that is what this set of proposals threatens,” Stier said. “What we are hearing described here is a threat to our democracy, to our ability to be a successful nation.”
He added that forcing federal employees to disobey their oath of to the Constitution and instead be loyal to an individual president would cause Americans to lose any trust in their government and make it impossible to recruit capable individuals to work for it. Stier said the public would "absolutely have to be concerned" about a chilling effect on federal employees blowing the whistle on illegal actions, speaking truth to power or simply conveying basic facts.
The former official objected to that characterization, saying the order would not create a loyalty test to the president but rather tell anyone participating in “deliberate policy resistance” it was time to find a new job. Defining and determining that behavior, however, would rest solely with the administration's political appointees. The official accused federal employees of engaging in such resistance on a widespread basis during Trump’s term and said he hoped a renewed Schedule F would cause those workers to rethink their strategies.
“If you know it’s impossible to fire you you’ll act one way, and if you know you can be fired, you’ll act another way,” the official said.
Simon noted there were “serious” governmentwide efforts underway to implement Trump’s order, but the administration simply ran out of time. The former Trump administration official similarly said “the clock ran out.” The Office of Management and Budget made the most progress, identifying 400 positions—or 80% of its workforce—that it would convert to at-will employment. Axios reported that with Trump’s blessing and financial support, Russ Vought, who drafted that plan as OMB director under Trump, is playing a key role in preparing for the relaunched Schedule F policy through his newly founded Center for Renewing America. Other key Trump-era personnel officials, such as former Domestic Policy Council member James Sherk and former Office of Personnel Management Director Michael Rigas, are also involved through the America First Policy Institute. Sherk wrote a report last year calling for converting all civil servants to at-will employment to better equip agencies to deal with “incompetence and insubordination.”
Earlier this year at a rally in South Carolina, Trump suggested he was aware of the efforts underway when he floated resurrecting and expanding Schedule F.
“We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States,” Trump said. “The deep state must and will be brought to heel.”
Erich Wagner contributed to this report.