Abhorring the leaks that have continued to emanate from the Trump administration, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, took to Twitter on March 5 to fire a shot at the president's enemies and landed it square at the feet of the federal workforce.
King’s tweet didn’t specify whether he meant political appointees or the civil service employees should be purged, but linked to a column by Conservative Review Senior Editor Daniel Horowitz that called for the Trump administration to fire all Obama appointees and special counsels that remained in the executive branch. King’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
No matter the intent, the result could prove detrimental for the relationship between the new administration and the civil service and could advocate for the violation of the Civil Service Act.
"Congressman King seems not to understand how federal workforce protections work, but despite his ignorance, those protections remain," said John Hudak, deputy director for the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management.
While Trump can remove any or all political appointees he chooses to — which presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have done in the past — civil servants are protected by federal law from removal based political reasons.
"The president could wake up tomorrow and fire every U.S. attorney in the country and he would be completely within his rights to do so," Hudak said. "But to compare firing political appointees to the firing of civil servants is apple and oranges. The reason we have civil servants is so that presidents can’t fire them like they can fire political appointees, so we don’t have an entire government of patronage like we did in the 1800s."
Deep state of mind
King, in recent interviews, has also alleged the Obama administration’s continued influence in the federal government, citing what he called a "deep state" influence in a March 5 New York Times articlethat was bent on hampering the Trump agenda.
"We are talking about the emergence of a deep state led by Barack Obama, and that is something that we should prevent," King told the Times, adding that the White House "needs to purge the leftists within the administration that are holdovers from the Obama administration, because it appears that they are undermining his administration and his chances of success."
Deep states are essentially shadow governments like the ones seen in Egypt and Pakistan, where factions of bureaucracy wield enough power to operate independently of the elected government and, in some cases, overthrow it in a coup.
While there isn’t a documented case of a deep state existing within the federal government, one issue that has been of consistent concern during presidential transitions has been political burrowing.
The "burrowing" occurs when a political appointee converts their job to one of a civil service employee, preventing them from being removed by the next administration.
While such conversions have occurred across several administrations, the process is often tightly controlled with approval required by the Office of Personnel Management.
OPM issued strict guidance in January 2016 requiring all federal agencies to submit any potential conversion for review before offering the position to an appointee in an effort to prevent burrowing.
A Sept. 30 GAO report found that federal agencies had approved 17 conversions without OPM approval from 2010 to 2015, but of those, OPM had later approved nine, denied four and was still reviewing one at the time of the report.
"Is it possible that new appointees may come in and find that there may be a couple of people that have converted? The answer is it’s possible," said Don Kettl, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Is it likely to be in large number? The answer is no. Is it likely to make a big impact on the administration’s ability to get its work done? The answer is almost certainly not."
One issue that has flummoxed the Trump administration since its inauguration has been the pace with which it has been able to install its appointees. According to CNN, the young administration had filled about half of its 4,000 political appointment roles by Feb. 25, and The Washington Examiner reported that shortly before the inauguration, 50 Obama appointees were staying on.
While Trump has complained about the Senate delaying his cabinet appointment, Kettl said that there is plenty of blame to share for the lag.
"Democrats are slow walking a lot of these appointments to the degree that they possibly can," he said. "Republicans have control of the Senate, so they have the ability to move these things more quickly.
"Part of the problem is that the Trump administration in its initial vetting of the nominees had not done a very high degree of vetting, so that means a lot of the financial [evaluations] in particular started at the time people were named. There’s blame that goes all the way around on this one."
Incivility for the civil service
Regardless of when Trump appointees come in and remaining Obama appointees leave, the administration will have to work with a civil service to achieve its goals.
That process looks tougher with the congressional chatter of a purge.
"What you have to do is try to get their hearts and minds with the agenda of the new administration," said Ed DeSeve, co-chair of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transition 2016 program and a former special adviser to the Obama administration.
"I don’t know that Rep. King, when he was talking about the executive branch … I don’t know whether he has a target group in his mind. He may have, but the idea of a purge is not something that I think the president wants to engage in and I don’t think that he needs to."