In July, I had dinner with a friend who has worked as a lawyer in the Justice Department for decades. My friend bemoaned the recent tweets by the president of the United States that called into question the integrity of Justice Department. Why isn’t Attorney General Jeff Sessions “looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?,” asked President Trump in one such (ungrammatical) tweet. And why didn’t Sessions “replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation?”
My friend was desolate because the president was baselessly questioning the integrity of senior leaders in the Justice Department—of the attorney general whom he appointed, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation whom he fired, and the acting FBI director who had served in the Bureau for decades. Such charges would have been disheartening if uttered in public by any official. But they were unfathomably worse coming from the chief executive on whose behalf my friend and tens of thousands of Justice Department employees worked hard to ensure faithful execution of the law, as the Constitution requires.
I thought about my friend this weekend when Trump launched his latest tweet-complaints about (as he put it) the “Justice” Department’s failure to go after “Crooked Hillary,” and about the “FBI’s phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more),” which (Trump claimed) left the FBI’s reputation “in Tatters – worst in History!”
The critique of these tweets is now familiar. They violate norms of law-enforcement independence from presidential influence. Their proximate aim is to discredit the Justice Department and FBI, probably in order to delegitimize it as the investigation of Robert Mueller gets ever closer to the president. And they appear to be part of an effort to weaken public confidence in American institutions more generally—not just DOJ, but also the “so-called” courts, the “fake news” media, the supposedly lying, incompetent intelligence community, and others.
This is all depressing enough. But another sharp cost of Trump’s caustic tweets has been largely neglected: The slow destruction of the morale of federal government employees, especially executive branch employees.
Just about everyone I knew when I worked in the Justice Department had an idealistic sense of mission—about the importance of law enforcement to the country’s welfare, about the integrity of the department’s actions, and about commitment to the rule of law. Of course these ideals weren’t always honored; and not every employee’s conception of the rule of law was sound. But the ideals were part of the constitutive culture of the department that gave meaning and urgency to its employees’ work, and that kept them grinding in their vital jobs even when they had more lucrative private-sector options. Every department and agency in the government has analogous commitments about the importance and integrity of work there.
Trump’s assault on executive branch departments and employees is crippling these cultures of commitment. I know this from talking to several Justice Department friends, including the one with whom I dined last summer. I see it in stories about how the State Department’s ranks are thinning fast. And it stands to reason that employees throughout the government feel the same way. It is hard to work for a president who attacks you weekly if not daily; who calls into public doubt your independence and integrity; and who shames you with his persistent shamelessness, deceit, and ignorance. The president is succeeding not just in diminishing the reputation of these institutions before the nation, but also in wrecking their aspirations within.
“What am I supposed to do about it?” my gloomy friend asked me last summer. My friend wanted to buck up colleagues’ spirits, and the department’s reputation, in the face of the president’s attacks. But options were limited. My friend had a pretty important job but was not a well-known public figure. The options were thus to resign in protest, or speak out and probably be fired. Neither course would have any effect on the president, my friend concluded, before deciding that the better option for the nation was to ignore the president and continue working hard to uphold the law.
But my friend was angry that none of the powerful leaders atop the department—most notably, Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein—were publicly defending it. Here we come to the crux of the problem. Senior officials throughout the government, all Trump appointees, regularly ignore or contradict the president publicly on issues ranging from the Mexican wall to waterboarding to the Russia investigation to the immigration executive orders to NATO. The president tweets and speaks his policy whims, but his administration, including his political appointees, regularly ignore him in carrying out its duties.
And yet as best I can tell, not a single cabinet official or agency head has stood up to the president’s attacks on the integrity of his or her department, or of federal employees more generally. (Acting Drug Enforcement Administration head Chuck Rosenberg came closest when he internally criticized the president’s encouragement of police misconduct and soon thereafter resigned because he believed Trump had little respect for the law.) Certainly neither Sessions nor Rosenstein has publicly challenged the president in the face of his repeated attacks on the Justice Department and its investigative decisions. (Indeed, Rosenstein laughably argued that Trump has “respect for the rule of law.”) Nor has the new FBI director, Chris Wray, come to the public defense of the Bureau, which the president has relentlessly excoriated, including last weekend.
I suspect that these men tell themselves a story, like my friend’s, that crossing the president in public would result in their firing but not stop Trump, and that the nation is better off if they stay silent and do their jobs. Perhaps so. That calculus, and that decision, are intensely personal and contextual.
But in performing this calculus, the leaders of the Justice Department should candidly consider the large costs of their silence. When they do not speak out against the president’s attacks on their institutions and the rule of law, they signal to their employees and the world that they are indefeasibly beholden to the president, or that they do not care. The failure to protect and defend the department engenders anger, suffering, and resentment by the men and women they are charged with leading the department. It also contributes to a sense of delegitimization within the department, and thus stokes the morale crisis. These are not consequences that any leader should ever tolerate.