Interior Department manager Joel Clement figured his new bosses in the Trump administration might disapprove of his climate-change-focused work protecting Alaskan villages from rising seas.
But the reassignment slip Clement received in June stunned him. He was not only removed from his post as director of policy analysis, he was deposited into a new job auditing fossil fuel company leases.
Approximately 50 such slips went out to the department’s most experienced and highly paid managers. Other recipients interviewed were just as puzzled as Clement. It seemed to them that they were getting moved for the sake of getting moved — often to jobs unrelated to their skills. On Wednesday, Clement joined those who have quit in frustration.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have shed some light on his thinking last week when he told a petroleum industry group that he believes nearly a third of his workforce is disloyal to the Trump agenda. “I got 30% of the crew that's not loyal to the flag,” he said, in a remark first reported by the Associated Press.
Most new administrations move quickly to reorient the federal workforce toward their agenda, but they usually rely on the deep expertise of top-level managers such as Clement to move the stubborn levers of bureaucracy. The Trump administration approach has been different.
“I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have been around the federal government for decades and they say transitions can be tough, but what this group is doing is remarkable,” said Clement, who filed a whistler-blower complaint over the reassignment. “They have moved me into an area I know nothing about. It might as well be Chinese.”
Clement’s old job has yet to be filled. The Alaskan villages he has advocated for, he said, are on the verge of getting washed away.
The administration’s actions have signaled deep suspicion of many of the civil servants on the government payroll, particularly when their work has involved confronting climate change or enforcing the environmental protections and other regulations the White House is working to roll back.
Some reassignments have come after media on the right demanded them, as was the case of a high-level State Department staffer whose involvement in the Iran nuclear deal was highlighted by Breitbart. Scores more diplomats at the department have been largely idled by an administration projecting ambivalence about their work.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, longtime civil servants — some with doctorates in environmental work — say they have been frozen out because their voluminous administrative records are out of sync with a Trump political agenda that holds that much of what they do is junk science.
“The work of the EPA science arm has now been disconnected from the agency’s decision-making,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “It’s like a bureaucratic Dunkirk over there. They are just stuck waiting on the beach.”
Betsy Southerland left her post in August as director of science and technology at the EPA Office of Water, after she said the administration all but ignored her team’s work. Just before she left, her division had compiled what she called “excruciatingly detailed briefings” explaining the environmental damage and public health risks that would result from an industry demand to suspend restrictions on wastewater dumped by power plants.
“We thought we could present this heavy-duty technical record and convince [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt he should not repeal everything,” she said. “We could show that what industry was saying was just not based in fact. But it fell on deaf ears. It all went to naught.”
Her resignation came after the departure at the EPA of David Schnare, a longtime friend of the right with deep experience at the agency. The president had tasked him with aligning career staff with the Trump agenda. Schnare wrote in an op-ed article for the Inside EPA newsletter that he found the challenge insurmountable because Pruitt had little interest in hearing what the agency’s managers had to say. He wrote that he ultimately quit after Pruitt ordered staff to break the law in dealing with what Schnare opaquely described as a “sensitive issue.”
“In my view, this violated our oaths of office and placed the career staff in an untenable position,” Schnare wrote in July.
EPA climate change advisor Michael Cox, who had been with the agency 25 years, sent his own scathing resignation letter to Pruitt in April. “We understand that our positions might not always prevail,” Cox wrote, “but please take the time to listen to expert voices that might differ from yours and your immediate staff.”
EPA officials argue that such critics don’t reflect the prevailing view at the agency, which just completed a buyout program that reduced its workforce by 440 employees. They say the complaints are politically motivated, coming from activists who want to scuttle the Trump administration agenda. And they refute Schnare’s allegations, pointing to various meetings Pruitt has had with the agency’s managers.
“We have a great working relationship with career EPA employees,” agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox wrote in an email. “In their own words, Mr. Cox said he was planning his retirement before the new administration and Ms. Southerland said she was retiring due to a family issue. Despite the faux outrage, both employees will receive their six-figure taxpayer-funded pension and we wish them the best.”
While the administration’s budget plan would cut the agency’s workforce by 20% and eliminate or roll back a broad range of environmental programs, officials there point out that there has been no wave of reassignments or staff shakeup since Trump took office.
That hasn’t been the case at the Interior Department, where Zinke’s shuffling of staff and his suggestion before Congress that he would use reassignments to push employees out of government has triggered a probe by the department’s inspector general and given fuel to the whistle-blower complaint filed by Clement.
Thirteen legal scholars, including UC Berkeley School of Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky, wrote the federal office that protects whistle-blowers on behalf of Clement, warning that the administration’s approach to dealing with its senior managers runs afoul of Nixon-era laws Congress passed to prevent purges of seasoned career staff for political reasons.
“We’d all thought that we had moved past this kind of retribution,” said Georgetown University law professor Josh Geltzer, who helped organize the effort.
Officials at the Interior Department would not comment on the whistle-blower investigation. But they say Congress created the class of managers to which Clement and the dozens of other reassigned employees belonged, called Senior Executive Service, so they could have a highly skilled and mobile group that can be called on to meet government’s biggest challenges, when and where they emerge.
“Personnel moves among the Senior Executive Service are being conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the department's operations,” said a statement from the department.
Eight Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee suspect a different motive and have demanded the inspector general review the matter.
“They are basically getting rid of the people who know the law and tell them ‘you can’t do that,’ and they are putting in people who are ignorant and do not know the policy framework,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member on the committee. She said it is not by coincidence that the New Mexico director of the Bureau of Land Management has been reassigned as Zinke moves to strip protections from two of the state’s new national monuments and roll back a major sage grouse conservation effort that the displaced director had championed.
Clement said the department’s effort to train him for a job for which he has no background or aptitude came at too high a cost to taxpayers. The process would have taken weeks and involved travel out West. Clement said in his resignation letter that the whole process placed unnecessary stress on the government employees tasked with retraining him.
The effort Clement was previously spearheading — to coordinate interagency aid to help relocate residents in imperiled Alaskan villages — has largely stalled, he said.
“They are on the brink of becoming refugees,” he said. “This is work we need to do. This is not just bad governance, it is morally dangerous.”
Oct. 4, 11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with Joel Clement’s resignation.
9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with a quote from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m., Sept. 26