How to Stop Trump From Retaliating Against Whistleblowers

The country will need every branch of our democracy acting as a line of defense.

Donald Trump’s real-time tweet blitz against Marie Yovanovitch as she testified before the House lawmakers last week was yet another example of his war against his own government and the public servants who make it work. This behavior is not inconsistent. In an earlier phone call with the Ukrainian president, he darkly warned that “she’s going to go through some things.” Asked to respond to the president’s comments, a demure Ambassador Yovanovitch told legislators they made her feel “threatened.”

Trump and his allies have similarly derided the fourteen other current or former career officials from five agencies who have testified as “never-Trumpers” and “Obama-holdovers,” all allegedly members of the “deep state.” One of them messaged me, “I returned to work the day after my testimony half expecting to see someone at my door, but so far no retaliation—and still no contact from those above.”

Among Trump’s more salient traits is petty vindictiveness toward those who are powerless to defend themselves. Following the release of the Mueller report, he targeted the FBI for retribution, prodding the Justice Department to fire the bureau’s former acting director Andrew McCabe so that he wouldn’t qualify for retirement benefits. He also forced out general counsel James A. Baker, former Comey chief of staff James Rybicki, and Peter Strzok, the special agent who initiated the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.

So far, the only hint of possible retaliation against the witnesses was against NSC staffer Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who said that he was being excluded from meetings in which he normally should be included. The Army is considering placing Vindman and his family in housing on a military base to protect them from potential violence.

Given his track record, however, the chances are good that Trump will seek ways to punish the federal workers who have testified in defiance of White House orders not to. He’s reportedly already lambasted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not cracking down on State Department officers who have done so. As Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice said, “They have bullseyes on their backs because the commander in chief put them there.”

So, let’s say Trump did try to retaliate against these honorable men and women still working in the federal government. How might he do it? And what can be done to protect them?

Retaliation can take a number of forms. Generally, there are three broad—and several specific—categories of retaliation typically taken against whistleblowers, according to J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents 670,000 federal employees.

Petty harassment is the most often employed tactic, e.g., writing up a whistleblower for petty infractions, such as arriving late for work. Other ways of punishment include diminishing his or her responsibilities or giving an otherwise highly rated employee negative performance evaluations.

Even more insidious—and harder to prove—are actions to deny the whistleblowers promotions or desirable assignments. That individual could also be denied a security clearance renewal or excluded from important meetings. The president has full authority to revoke security clearances, as he threatened to do last year with former senior officials who had been critical of him, ranging from ex-CIA chief John Brennan to former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.

Least vulnerable are those who are either retired, like Bill Taylor, or approaching retirement, like Marie Yovanovitch. Those with the most to lose are the mid-to-senior level officials. That includes State Department’s Jennifer Williams, Catherine Croft, George Kent and David Holmes; the Department of Defense’s Alexander Vindman and Laura Cooper, and the Office of Management and Budget’s Mark Sandy.

Despite the positive press coverage of the Foreign Service officers testifying, morale at that agency is at rock bottom. A recent inspector general’s report documents “hostile and disrespectful treatment” of career employees by Trump political appointees, including “retaliation” for perceived disloyalty.

State Department employees have told me they work in an atmosphere of deep caution, often bordering on fear. One Foreign Service Officer said, “People were following the Hill hearings very intently, though nobody was saying anything because you couldn’t know whether the person next to you was a political appointee.” Another, who recently resigned in protest, said there is a pervasive sense of “learned helplessness.” Few believe Secretary Pompeo has their backs.

Not since the McCarthy era have federal employees felt so vulnerable to political attacks. This was especially the case at the State Department. The cream of the Foreign Service’s “China Hands” fell victim to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunts—fired without cause, their careers aborted, and reputations damaged—a dark period that stays in the collective consciousness of employees to this day. When I joined the Foreign Service out of college, old timers related harrowing stories of the reign of terror McCarthy inflicted on State’s work force, which made senior managers excessively cautious for many years thereafter.

The country obviously needs a viable, well-functioning governmental apparatus to safeguard national security and provide services to the citizenry. We must prepare for measures, therefore, to blunt Trump’s mindless vandalism against government agencies and the public servants who man them.

AFGE’s Morrow said Congress and the news media have the most visible roles. Less visible are agencies’ unions, inspectors general, and the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent body whose main task is to protect federal employees, including whistleblowers, from abusive treatment.

They are not alone. House Subcommittee on Government Operations Chairman Gerry Connolly told me, through a spokeswoman, that his committee will “continue to protect whistleblowers, expose this administration’s failures to uphold laws against retaliation, and hold those who violate the public trust accountable through hearings and investigations, and by requesting audits and evaluations from the federal inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office.”

The past three years have laid bare a president who spends an inordinate amount of time viciously attacking anybody he perceives as either threat or disloyal to him. We have seen how he goes after cabinet secretaries and civil servants alike.

To avert another McCarthy-like nightmare of patriotic public servants being purged by a deranged president, the country will need a strong and multi-faceted line of defense: the news media must shine a bright light on abuses; Congress must launch vigorous investigations and call abusers to account; employee unions need to vociferously safeguard employees; and the federal bodies tasked with protecting federal workers should be energized.

Finally, the malicious and fabulist concept that there’s some “deep state” of scheming bureaucrats out to sabotage the president needs to be debunked once and for all. Then, the American public can restore its respect for our government.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.