Trump signs executive order that critics warn politicizes federal career civil service

The White House is seen in Washington, DC, October 2, 2020.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order that appears to provide him and his agency appointees more leeway in the hiring and firing of federal employees deemed disloyal, a move that critics say politicizes civil service and could lead to career officials being pushed out for political reasons.

The President has vilified some career officials as the "deep state" during his term and sought to rid the federal government of people he views as anti-Trump. Critics warn that the order would allow the President to fill the federal workforce with his cronies and reverts the country back to a spoils systems.

The executive order, issued Wednesday, creates a new classification of federal employees titled "Schedule F" for employees serving in "confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating positions" that typically do not change during a presidential transition.

The White House says the directive will give federal agencies more flexibility to hire "Schedule F" employees but also be able to remove "poor performers" from these roles without going through a lengthy appeals process.

The push back was fierce, with the largest union for federal employees calling the order the "most profound undermining of the civil service in our lifetimes."

"Through this order, President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him -- not to America," Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. "By targeting federal workers whose jobs involve government policies, the real-world implications of this order will be disastrous for public health, the environment, the defense of our nation, and virtually every facet of our lives."

Max Stier, the head of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which seeks to fix government, argued, "Being able to place any number of existing career positions into this new Schedule F not only blurs the line between politics and the neutral competency of the career civil service, it obliterates it."

Trump's executive order would also strip hundreds of thousands of federal workers of their due process rights and protections, according to Kelley.

But while the order aims to make it easier to remove employees for poor performance, the White House says that the order prohibits "certain personnel actions" against "Schedule F" employees, including "actions on the basis of the employee's partisan affiliation, other protected characteristics, or because of the employee's status as a whistleblower."

According to the White House, the order does not impact the Senior Executive Service, top employees who serve just below presidential appointees.

Senior Executives Association interim president Bob Corsi said in a statement Thursday that the executive order is "nothing more than propaganda intended to further the message that career federal workers are corrupt and not dedicated to serving all Americans equally."

The directive also changes hiring for the roles from "competitive service," which is majority of the civil service positions, to "excepted service."

Corsi said the order goes against research and leadership from good government groups that advocate for an "increasingly merit-based and competitive workforce" and instead injects the workforce with positions "tied to vague performance metrics based on political talking points."

Congressional Democrats decried the move, suggesting that Trump's goal is to push out the nation's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he's been critical of during the coronavirus pandemic.

"This president's attacks on our federal workforce continue: It seems clear that he wants to be able to fire exemplary career officials like Dr. Fauci and those in the intelligence community who know that they serve the American people and not Donald Trump," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a tweet.

Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, who represents the largest number of federal workers, said Congress would look at "legislative remedies" to the President's order.

The order, which comes less than two weeks ahead of the election and with a deadline for a "preliminary review" of which positions should be designated as "Schedule F" the day before the presidential inauguration, could be rescinded if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is elected.

Trump has long pushed the conspiracy that there is a "deep state" embedded within the government bureaucracy conspiring against him.

After his impeachment acquittal, Trump was eager to purge his administration of officials he perceived as anti-Trump and instead install officials who have previously proved their loyalty to him.

In February, Trump's personnel chief, John McEntee, told agency officials to watch for staffers disloyal to Trump and to expect staffing changes and movements across the government, which was first reported by Axios.

Trump's executive order, however, earned praise from the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, who argued that Trump is delivering on his promise to "drain the swamp."

"Our Founding Fathers never envisioned a massive unelected, unaccountable federal government with the power to create policies that impact Americans' everyday lives," Rep. James Comer, of Kentucky, said in a statement, adding that it requires civil servants holding policy-making positions to be accountable to the president.

CNN's Jason Hoffman and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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