MICHELLE COTTLE: Trump has made civil servants sexy; Bureaucrats inspire passion

Posted November 29, 2019 8:55 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2019 8:15 a.m. EST

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board, focusing on U.S. politics. She has covered Washington and politics since the Clinton administration.

So who has been your favorite witness so far in the House’s impeachment investigation?

Was it Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, with his old-school steadiness and Walter Cronkite voice?

What about George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, with that adorable bow tie?

Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine driven from office by a smear campaign led by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, was a study in fierce dignity, even as President Donald Trump’s congressional lap dogs nipped at her heels.

And, my oh my, Fiona Hill. That accent! That manner! That drive to deflate batty conspiracy theories about Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election as the Putin-serving claptrap they are! Not long into her appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, the #FionaHillFanClub had sprung up on Twitter, and people were debating who should play her in the movie. (No contest: Kristin Scott Thomas.)

Among Trump’s defenders, the impeachment witnesses have been dismissed and derided as deep-state conspirators set on overthrowing a duly elected president. The term “unelected bureaucrat” has been bandied about with the sort of revulsion normally reserved for “child pornographer” or “drug mule.” Now and again, Trump could not resist openly attacking these current and former members of his administration even as they were testifying.

Rarely have career public servants inspired such passion.

Once upon a time, government officials were largely thought of as dreary drones — that is, when anyone bothered to think of them at all. But along came Trump, and suddenly, these largely unknown operators have assumed an aura of mystery, danger even. For those who don’t see them as treasonous denizens of the swamp Trump was elected to drain, they are heroes of the resistance, calling out the excesses of an out-of-control president.

Once again, Trump seems to have accomplished something that no one imagined possible: He has made civil servants sexy.

It’s not just the players in the impeachment drama who have assumed an extra bit of sizzle.

In September, officials in the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service found themselves in the national spotlight after gently correcting Trump’s inaccurate tweet about the projected path of Hurricane Dorian. The president had warned that the storm was headed for Alabama. It was not. His ensuing effort to save face led to an unwarranted scolding of the Weather Service, the questionable intervention of multiple senior government officials, including the commerce secretary, and the apparent doctoring of a weather map, which spawned the appropriately absurd #Sharpiegate scandal. At an industry conference that same month, the director of the National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, publicly praised his staff for heading off a “public panic” and asked the crowd to give them a standing ovation.

More troubling, a steady flow of advisers and employees of agencies ranging from the Department of Homeland Security to the Environmental Protection Agency have resigned in disgust with, or protest of, Trump’s policies and practices. In July of last year, four members of a DHS advisory panel stepped down, citing the administration’s “morally repugnant” decision to snatch migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border.

Not that any of this is likely to bother Trump. Since Day 1, he has evinced zero respect for his own government and the people who power it. This goes beyond any paranoia about administrative coups. A deep-seated hostility toward government is central to his brand — and his party’s brand more broadly. Just a few weeks after Trump was sworn into office, Steve Bannon, at the time a top White House adviser, cited the “deconstruction of the administrative state” as a core principle of the president’s agenda.

True to his word, Trump and his appointees have labored to dismantle chunks of the government and drive people out the door, directly and indirectly. He has ordered indiscriminate cuts to advisory boards. Senior staff members have been shuffled into jobs far outside their areas of expertise. Research programs have been shelved or defunded or their findings suppressed if they did not suit the White House’s political agenda.

This June, the Trump administration announced plans to move two scientific agencies with the Agriculture Department from Washington to the Kansas City region. There are plenty of reasons such a decision might make sense, including what the agency estimated would be $20 million in annual savings on operating costs. Even so, many employees were upset by the prospect of having their lives upended and suggested they’d rather resign than relocate. To which Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, snarked that he saw losing workers as “a wonderful way to sort of streamline government.”

Such disrespect by the president and his top people has taken its toll on morale throughout the government — a corrosion receiving fresh attention thanks to impeachment. In their testimonies, officials like Yovanovitch and Hill voiced frustration and concern at how the president’s disdain for the Foreign Service was undermining policy.

Tuesday, House Democrats released the impeachment deposition of Mark Sandy, a career official at the Office of Management and Budget. Among Sandy’s revelations: Two of his colleagues resigned recently in part over concerns about the president putting a hold on nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.

Most likely, Trump will spin this as good riddance to bad rubbish. But many Americans may feel much differently. Who knows? The OMB’s as-yet-to-be-identified refugees may soon find themselves with their own hashtags and fan clubs.

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