Who needs a bunch of interfering bureaucrats? We do. From unwieldy Medicare administration to environmental regulations, both states and individuals have their reasons to bemoan the cumbersome federal bureaucracy. A lot of this criticism comes from the right wing of the political spectrum. Republicans usually complain about federal interference with states’ rights and individual autonomy, but a new reason for the Republican Party to fear the federal bureaucracy has begun to emerge over the first 120 days of this train wreck of a Presidency. The career civil service does not like to have its work disrespected and impeded, and Donald Trump is doing his best to withhold the personnel and resources federal agencies need to carry out their respective missions. He has already infuriated the National Park Service and the EPA, and now, by firing James Comey, he has alienated the second most powerful element of the domestic bureaucracy (the first being the IRS): the men and women of the FBI. This raises an interesting question when the leadership of two of our three branches of government appear determined to dismantle it: could the monolithic, unchanging, much maligned nature of the career federal bureaucracy be the institution that saves us from authoritarianism?
Trump can starve executive agencies, but bureaucrats will still execute their missions
It is no secret that Trump has done his best to impede federal agencies by depriving them of politically appointed staff. For the 530 positions that require political appointments, he has only put forth 37 nominees. However, in using this tactic, he is really compromising his own agenda, not the daily functions of the Executive. Critical agency positions do not simply go unfilled in the absence of a nominee – they are filled by career bureaucrats unassociated with political parties (for instance, the current Acting Director of the FBI is married to a Democratic operative). Consequently, career civil servants have been preventing Trump’s Cabinet nominees from destroying their respective Departments. Fortunately for us, those bureaucrats have the law on their side.
Unless and until Congress rescinds the laws each department is designed to execute – the National Environmental Protection Act and Clean Water Act, for instance – career civil servants will continue to carry out the daily functions of the Executive Branch. Even after Trump has installed his saboteurs, their ability to destroy their agencies will be limited in the long term; many of the authorizing statutes, especially environmental laws, authorize citizens to sue to force executive agencies to carry out their missions and enforce Congress’s mandate. So if, for instance, the new EPA destroyer-in-chief rescinds anti-pollution regulations, and pollution grows demonstrably worse, any affected citizen can sue to reverse that decision. It seems unlikely, given the profusion of leaks in Trump’s first 100 days, that career bureaucrats responsible for the day to day running of the Executive Branch will obey any instruction to disregard court decisions or betray their agencies’ missions. Just look at Sally Yates. Why would they destroy the agencies to which they have devoted their careers if they have the law on their side?
The FBI is the worst agency to alienate because it is semi-independent and has the authority to destroy Trump
It also seems that Trump has infuriated many career FBI agents and administrators by firing James Comey disrespectfully and on a transparently pretextual basis. No reasonable person believes Trump fired Comey because his mistreatment of Hillary Clinton proved incompetence. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe contradicted Trump’s assertion that Comey was incompetent under oath before the Senate. Subsequently, Trump revealed that he was going to fire Comey no matter what, because of Comey’s insistence on investigating Trump’s Russia connections. Suddenly, a profusion of leaks flowed out of the FBI. Trump clearly has not considered the potential consequences of his actions; knowledge is power, so any individual FBI agent working on the Russia investigation has power over Trump, if that agent is willing to talk to the Press. The benefit of a large bureaucracy like the FBI is that even if Trump goes after big names, the relatively anonymous cogs will continue pursuing the task at hand – in this case, the unmasking of Donald Trump. I’m not saying the FBI or any other bureaucratic organization is a permanent bulwark against Trumpism. However, the highly regulated, protocol-driven, red tape riddled nature of a complex bureaucracy can slow the progress of Trump’s agenda until, hopefully, we can elect functional leaders to the Legislative Branch.
Trump has taken on a behemoth he cannot control
Until this week, Trump has been focused on undermining agencies like the EPA, the National Park Service, and the Department of Education, and the employees of those agencies have ensured the Press is well informed of the changes he wants to impose. Now he has taken on a bureaucracy that can truly harm him. As much as Trump and Jeff Sessions appear inclined to co-opt the federal law enforcement apparatus for political retaliation and drug prosecutions, the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s Russia connections is relatively protected from their interference because of Sessions’s recusal. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein oversees that investigation, and for all that Trump tried to pin the Comey firing on him, he is a well respected and ethical former US Attorney under both the Bush and Obama Administrations. It seems unlikely he will deliberately sabotage this particular investigation. The FBI investigation, infuriatingly slow and full of bureaucratic rules though it is, will labor on. Bureaucrats in the FBI and elsewhere are a force for continuity; simply by following byzantine agency protocols and imposing the red tape we all despise, they slow the rate of change. They can, if they are willing, curb the excesses of a President determined to undermine America’s institutions.