Career officials are savvy bureaucratic maneuverers. They understand that Republicans come into power looking to reduce the size of government, while Democrats seek to expand its regulatory reach. They have plans and option papers and briefing books on the shelf prepared for Republican administrations and for Democratic ones alike. They are happy to tell political appointees which ideas have been tried before, and why they failed, and perhaps even how they could be made to succeed. Certainly, some will leak, but so will some politicals. And some will cooperate more than others. But for the most part, experienced politicals know who careers are, what they do, and how to work with them. Some meetings of a political nature should of course be held without career officials in the room, but it’s a mistake to shut them out of all meetings. As imperfect and generally pro-Leviathan as the arrangement is, both careers and politicals typically know the score, and there is a generally understood détente among them.
The question for 2017 is whether this détente will hold.
Donald Trump is a different kind of president from the type we have seen previously. He is blunter and brasher and generally more hostile to the way things are done in Washington. In addition, the opposition to Trump is more adamant, and even perhaps more unhinged, than at any point in the modern age. This hostility to Trump may reshape the relations between career and political officials in a way that could affect the ability of Trump to carry out his ambitious agenda.
There is some evidence for this notion that things may be different this time. A poll in February 2016 showed that one-quarter of career officials would consider quitting their jobs if Trump secured the presidency. Still, 67 percent said they would remain in place, which is not surprising given the lifetime tenure of these jobs. These positions are not given up easily. Furthermore, the promises of those who would consider quitting in the face of a political event they opposed should be taken with a grain of salt. The long line of cars driving north along the I-5 from Hollywood to Canada has not yet materialized, for example.
There were indications of bureaucratic resistance to the legitimately elected president during the transition period. In one Politico piece, career officials at HHS were disturbingly candid about their disdain for President-elect Trump, while at the same time protecting themselves in the veil of anonymity. One told reporter Dan Diamond that “it’s tough from the career staff side,” before asking, “Do you stay and try and be the internal saboteur?” Another called the Trump win “obviously shocking and upsetting,” a third “soul crushing.” One of the staffers quoted paid lip service to the fact that they “respect the need to have a peaceful transition of power,” but added that “it’s just frustrating to calmly hand over the keys when you know they’ll wreck the car.” Politico’s Blake Hounsell quoted one anonymous, presumably career, official lamenting the appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at the State Department: “I’ve been resisting the urge to drink since 7 a.m., when I read the news.”