Impeachment Hearings Illustrate Longstanding Conflict Throughout Trump's Presidency

Nov 18, 2019
Originally published on November 18, 2019 7:17 pm
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Many of the key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump are members of what Trump has called the, quote, "deep state." The public hearings have so far featured longtime government employees, State Department officials who've worked for Democratic and Republican administrations alike. NPR's Brian Naylor looks at how the inquiry is putting the conflict between Trump and the civil service into focus.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In the public impeachment hearings last week, Americans got a good look at three career civil servants who, for the most part, worked behind the scenes to implement U.S. foreign policy. There was State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent.

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GEORGE KENT: I have served proudly as a non-partisan career foreign service officer for more than 27 years, under five presidents - three Republican and two Democrat.

NAYLOR: The acting ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, told a similar story - a West Point graduate who fought on the front lines in Vietnam and served in various government positions for more than 50 years. And there was former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who summed up her idea of public service.

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MARIE YOVANOVITCH: We are professionals. We are public servants who, by vocation and training, pursue the policies of the president, regardless of who holds out office or what party they affiliate with.

NAYLOR: But that idea of public service has been dismissed by President Trump, who derided the three witnesses as political, falsely accusing them of being never-Trumpers. His son, Donald Jr., tweeted that America hired Donald Trump to fire people like the first three witnesses we've seen, career government bureaucrats and nothing more. Here's the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes of California, at the start of the hearings.

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DEVIN NUNES: I'll conclude by noting the immense damage a politicized bureaucracy has done to Americans' faith in government. Elements of the civil service have decided that they, not the president, are really in charge.

PAUL LIGHT: It's a hostile message to line government officers and employees who deliver a good deal of what Americans want from government like Social Security checks and Medicare coverage and so forth. It's destructive.

NAYLOR: Professor Paul Light of NYU teaches about public service. He says the repeated attacks by the Trump administration are hurting the federal bureaucracy and discourage people from wanting to work for the government.

LIGHT: This rhetoric about hidden bureaucrats and sleepers within agencies and conspirators undermines future interest in public service careers at the federal level. It's very damaging.

NAYLOR: There are some 2 million federal government workers, most of whom live and work outside of Washington, D.C. And it's an aging workforce. Some 25% are over the age of 55 and on a path to retirement. According to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, some 1,200 senior-level public employees left government in the first year and a half of the Trump administration, a 45% increase from the first 18 months of the Obama administration. Of course, many of those people were replaced.

And this is not the first time the career civil service, and in particular State Department employees, have come under fire. In fact, says retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, things have been worse.

RONALD NEUMANN: It is not the McCarthy period, where people were fired even after being vindicated in loyalty exams for supposed connections to the communists. It is not the period where people were purged from the departments for suspected homosexual tendencies. So it's not good, but draw a deep breath.

NAYLOR: Neumann says the idea of a deep state working against the president's interests is silly. Still, it's an attack the president has returned to repeatedly, one he believes rallies his base against the Washington swamp. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.