If Trump Wins, Washington’s Brain Trust Is Eyeing the Exit Door

At the State Department, Pentagon, and other agencies, some senior officials can’t take four more years.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for an event at the White House in Washington on July 22. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

National security professionals across U.S. government agencies fear an exodus of senior experts from government if Donald Trump is elected to a second term, according to a dozen current and former officials across multiple agencies, who said that the president’s disdain of government expertise and political attacks on seasoned diplomats could spark a massive brain drain.

During his four years in the White House, Trump has drawn fire for dismissing or undermining senior intelligence and law enforcement officials dealing with Russia, ignoring top government health experts on the response to the coronavirus pandemic, and shutting out career diplomats from decisions on foreign policy.

National security professionals across U.S. government agencies fear an exodus of senior experts from government if Donald Trump is elected to a second term, according to a dozen current and former officials across multiple agencies, who said that the president’s disdain of government expertise and political attacks on seasoned diplomats could spark a massive brain drain.

During his four years in the White House, Trump has drawn fire for dismissing or undermining senior intelligence and law enforcement officials dealing with Russia, ignoring top government health experts on the response to the coronavirus pandemic, and shutting out career diplomats from decisions on foreign policy.

Already, Trump has vowed to fire more senior government officials if he is reelected, including CIA Director Gina Haspel, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious diseases, who has been at the forefront of the U.S. response to the pandemic—and who rendered a scathing judgment of the administration’s failed response in a Washington Post interview last week.

The onslaught of politicized attacks, scattershot approaches to policymaking, and Trump’s norm-shattering methods of governance have worn down many veteran national security professionals, said the current and former officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s not simply a question of policies that may be difficult to support, it’s a deliberate undermining of the way we protect the integrity of government services,” said one former senior State Department official who served under multiple administrations. “I can’t remember another administration in which there was such a wholesale assault on the professionalism of the mid- and senior-levels of bureaucracies in the US government.”

Current and former officials said such an exodus will have far-reaching negative impacts on the federal government’s ability to carry out foreign policy. It’s likely to make high-level policymaking even more chaotic, while making it harder to carry out day-to-day work.

Trump’s recent executive order that could reclassify thousands of federal civil service workers, stripping them of employment protections, is sparking concerns that the U.S. administration would seek to further politicize career appointments in the executive branch, where appointees have been subjected to perceived loyalty tests coordinated by the White House. 

Signed weeks before the election, Trump’s sweeping directive calls on cabinet secretaries to conduct a broad review of their workforces to decide which officials should move into the new at-will positions before Inauguration Day, a move that is drawing protests from labor groups and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill. 

“These frontline workers honorably serve our country regardless of who the commander-in-chief is and have critical institutional knowledge that cannot be replaced with political loyalists,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This cynical move, on the eve of the election, is a backdoor attempt by Trump to burrow his partisan hacks into government in the event he loses. Trump is trying once again to undermine career government employees who don’t pass his unpatriotic loyalty test, and Congress should fight it.”

Trump has fumed at government professionals, characterizing them as working against his administration’s priorities and repeatedly railing against what some have dubbed the “deep state.” While speaking to supporters at a recent fundraiser, Trump said it was more difficult to deal with his own government than with U.S. rivals like Russia or North Korea. 

“Somebody said, president, what’s the toughest country to deal with? Is it Russia? Is it China? Is it North Korea? … No, the toughest country by far is dealing with the United States,” Trump said, according to the Washington Post. “It’s true. These people are sick.”

The White House and Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The State Department declined to comment. 

At the State Department, midlevel and senior foreign service officers who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations said they are increasingly eyeing the exit. Many senior positions at the department have sat unfilled for years, while Trump has tapped a disproportionately high number of political allies and donors for ambassador posts, regardless of their qualifications. 

Some said it has less to do with the administration’s policies but rather the president’s own approach to governing, combined with widespread internal mismanagement and mistreatment of diplomats, and the president’s antagonistic approach toward historic U.S. allies. Some pointed to how the administration and its allies castigated seasoned diplomats such as Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, during the impeachment trial, and how Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered them no public support.

Others cited the president’s dismissive approach to racism and police violence—from his handling of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 all the way through to his executive order banning some diversity training from the federal government.

“Many of us are simply tired of fighting so many shitty battles,” said a current senior career diplomat. “Defending policy shifts by tweet. Trying to preserve important alliances from his personal vendettas … trying to build cooperation among like-minded countries even on stuff he’s right about like China, where we can’t work with Euro[pean] allies because he’s too busy beating up on them about other stuff.”

The State Department and other federal agencies do not publicly release a breakdown of how many people leave government at middle or senior levels, or the reasons for their leaving, making it difficult to assess the exact degree of brain drain during the past four years. Anecdotally, every official interviewed for this story said many colleagues in their close networks are quietly considering resigning if Trump wins again. 

At the Pentagon, officials are bracing for a spate of firings and purges for those not considered loyal enough to Trump if he wins reelection, current and former Pentagon officials said, after the administration has aggressively moved to insert loyalists across government during the election year. 

“It’s of a pace with President Trump’s attempt to make personal loyalty rather than commitments to the constitution, to the rule of law, to the military chain of command the basis for judging someone’s suitability for federal employment,” said Kori Schake, a former George W. Bush administration official and a Trump critic. 

Others pointed to the damage done by Trump lackeys appointed to influential roles in bureaucracies across the government—even if they had little or no prior relevant experience for the role. The State Department’s bureau that oversees international organizations faced a crisis in morale and management after two senior appointees were accused of bullying and demeaning staffers and seeking to drive out career professionals who were associated with Obama administration policies. Both officials left their posts after senior officials conceded they failed to shield employees from retaliation, nearly a year after the issues were first brought to light.

The Trump administration shut out many seasoned Republican foreign-policy experts from serving in the administration after they signed “Never Trump” letters during his 2016 campaign cycle. Since then, he has scraped the very bottom of the barrel.

“Let’s be real: He’s already got the C or D team running State, DOD, etc. Who comes in to actually work a second term?” said one senior diplomat with decades of experience. 

But the White House already appears to have begun making preparatory moves to staff the Pentagon’s ranks with loyalists for a second term. The Defense Department’s influential policy shop, which has struggled to hire and retain staffers dating back to the Obama administration, has spent much of the year pushing back against directives to bring in Trump loyalists to fill high-ranking posts with unusually thin resumes. 

Under both former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned over Trump’s treatment of U.S. allies, and his successor Mark Esper, the Pentagon has struggled to escape the perception that officials are not on the president’s team, current and former officials said—leading to repeated White House-led efforts to clean house. Most recently, the administration remade the Pentagon’s White House liaison shop, part of a governmentwide shakeup of the offices that are seen as the eyes and ears of the administration, seeming to favor younger and less experienced officials. 

 “If the Trump administration continues, I would expect it’s going to be filled by ultra-loyalists as their first and only qualification,” a former senior Trump administration official said. “And that’s probably across the government.” 

Some former officials insisted that the Trump administration never made a full-throated effort to restore the Pentagon’s civilian talent pool, owing to an unsteady transition to the White House and the appointment of Mattis, a retired Marine general who coordinated closely with top military commanders and sometimes cut civilian officials out of the loop on key decisions. 

“Mattis just didn’t want to hear what policy wanted to say,” one former Trump administration defense official said. 

Avenues into the career civilian service at the Pentagon also narrowed considerably under Trump, especially after a hiring freeze on national security positions early in the administration, which hamstrung civil service recruitment and caused burnout in the workforce. 

“There’s this whole generation of smart, talented people who want to work in [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] who can’t,” said the former defense official. “And if [you’re] not a veteran, God help you. You’ve got this shriveling and aging group of people who are running policy. There’s no fresh blood.”

The failure to staff up could cause generational brain drain in Pentagon policy, according to multiple former officials, who feared that there aren’t enough middle-tier civil service officials rising up through the ranks to make up for subject matter experts who are reaching retirement age. 

Current and former officials have already expressed concerns about a lack of qualifications among new appointees to top policy jobs. Those include Joe Francescon, a newly minted deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, and Dennis Bartow, who was named the Pentagon’s top official for Africa this year after previously being pushed out of a more junior role in the same office. 

Elsewhere in the national security establishment, in the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community, a similar pattern of brain drain and calls for loyalty to Trump are emerging. A succession of unqualified Trump loyalists in the intelligence community’s top job—Richard Grenell and John Ratcliffe—have used the post to drastically reshape the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and drew criticism for sidelining career officials, including the veteran intelligence officer Beth Sanner, Trump’s daily briefer. 

Organizational changes, the purges, and the quest for loyalists are making it ever harder for the agencies to find qualified people to do the work.

“Not only do you have a potential retention issue of keeping the good people we have now, but you have a potential recruiting problem,” said David Lapan, a former top Department of Homeland Security spokesman under Trump and retired Marine colonel now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

“Why do you want to come into federal government service if you’re going to be treated this way?”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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