Donald Trump’s threats to American democracy are often bold and flashy. He tried to overthrow a presidential election. He stole classified national-security documents. He promised to pardon January 6 insurrectionists if he retakes the presidency.
But one of Trump’s most dangerous initiatives is a rather subtle maneuver: He wants to change the law so thousands of federal-government employees can be fired without cause.
The implications of this seemingly innocuous tweak to employment law are profound.
Right now, most federal employees can’t be fired absent good cause. That is, they can’t be sent packing unless they actually do something wrong. The employees, moreover, can dispute the basis of their terminations before a neutral judge. Trump wants to eliminate these significant protections – so he can fire whoever he wants, whenever he wants.
Late in his presidency, Trump signed an executive order giving himself this authority. Joe Biden promptly repealed it. And this month the House of Representatives approved a bill cementing the federal-employment protections.
It’s essential to the vitality of American democracy that this bill becomes law and thus beyond the reach of future executive orders. The only thing that stopped Trump from achieving numerous anti-democratic, anti-constitutional objectives from the Oval Office was a large group of government employees who disobeyed his orders.
It happened time and again. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to enforce Trump’s Travel Ban. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to close the FBI’s Russia investigation. White House Counsel Don Mcghan ignored Trump’s orders to fire Robert Mueller. Attorney General William Barr stymied Trump’s attempt to overturn the presidential election.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even explained publicly (after leaving office) how he consistently rebuffed Trump’s attempts to violate the law: “The President would say, ‘here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it.’ And I’d have to say to him, ‘well Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
The pressure Trump put on officials to overthrow the 2020 presidential election was, indeed, so extreme that ten former Secretaries of Defense issued a letter on January 3, 2021, warning federal employees in Trump’s orbit: “Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” they wrote. “Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”
While these prominent examples involving high-level officials made headlines, the daily resolve of thousands of federal employees -those who quietly turn presidential orders into concrete government action – consistently protected the country from Trump’s worst instincts. These are the people who Trump wants gone.
Trump and his advisers have identified American democracy’s core vulnerabilities – and that’s where they are focused. Instead of simply saying the Democrats stole the 2020 election, Trump wants loyalists to administer the 2024 election in battleground states. Instead of relying on Twitter and Facebook to reach voters, Trump has built his own social-media platform. And, now, instead of simply issuing illegal orders if he retakes the presidency, Trump wants to eliminate the people who would ignore them.
Trying to reduce federal-employment protections isn’t as flashy as Trump’s higher-profile initiatives. And it’s certainly not getting the same amount of press. But the change would be enormously consequential. Principled federal employees stood firmly between Trump’s presidential ambitions and America’s empirical reality. This guardrail is essential. American democracy can’t withstand a second Trump presidency if his subordinates actually do what he says.
William Cooper is an attorney and the author of Stress Test: How Donald Trump Threatens American Democracy.