Going rogue: Bureaucrats find ways to resist Trump

Trump fires acting AG over travel ban
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Story highlights

  • The young administration has been ferocious in seeking to weed out dissent from the ranks
  • The rogue resistance has not been confined to the halls of Washington power

(CNN)The pitched resistance to the Trump administration's early onslaught of executive actions and controversial Cabinet nominations has increasingly come to be defined and inspired by a coalition of the unassuming -- bureaucrats and mostly anonymous civil servants.

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats in Washington are the minority party in both chambers of Congress with no White House to push back on or reject the Republican agenda. Nearly powerless as President Donald Trump seeks to impose his will on the machinery of government, opponents and conflicted nonpartisan civil servants have been forced to seek out new and unusual means of resistance.
The young administration has been ferocious in seeking to weed out dissent from the ranks. Before Trump took office, his transition team sent a letter to the Energy Department, which it later disavowed under pressure, asking for the names of government employees working on climate change issues. Soon after he took office, Trump's White House website was scrubbed of any critical mentions of climate change, setting off a rush to preserve crucial data and keep it accessible to the public.
The administration's actions are not entirely outside the realm of the recognizable -- new presidents have the prerogative to highlight their priorities and downgrade others. But Trump and his inner circle's delight in attacking political norms -- the strategic underpinning of his winning candidacy -- and their decision to author and implement a shock and awe series of orders in such rapid succession has inspired its own brand of asymmetrical blowback.
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The administration's travel ban order appeared, for its lack of specificity, designed to sow chaos and resistance. The simple fact of it would have provoked anger around the country -- and that's even if it had been delivered with caution and more careful legal vetting. But its haphazard and chaotic implementation created crises inside the government while mobilizing mass protests outside Washington, in cities around the country.
By Monday night, a little more than 72 hours after Trump signed the fateful papers at the Pentagon, CNN reported that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates instructed Justice Department lawyers not to make legal arguments defending the order, which had become the subject of multiple court challenges.
Yates, an Obama appointee asked to stay on by Trump, was promptly fired and replaced. The White House said in a statement that she had "betrayed" the department she served.
Her late night sacking stands out as the most contentious clash to date between the administration and opponents inside Congress and out who have become increasingly willing to go rogue in their efforts to cut off or gum up its agenda.
Two unusual acts of defiance followed on Tuesday. First, a collection of 900 State Department diplomats delivered a memo opposing the travel ban, delivering it to top White House officials. Later in the day, Senate Democrats, their backs stiffened by a base demanding a more muscular response to Trump's nominees, boycotted two committee hearings, grinding the confirmation process for the likely secretaries of the Treasury and Health and Human Services to a temporary halt. (Republicans on Wednesday voted to suspend committee rules and advance the nominations.)
During his daily briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer reacted bitterly to questions about the incoming State Department "memo of dissent," suggesting career public servants who took issue with Trump's policies should abandon their posts.
"I think (career bureaucrats) should either get with the program or they can go," Spicer said. Pressed by reporters, he added, "And if somebody has a problem with that agenda then that does call into question whether or not they should continue in that post or not."
The rogue resistance has not been confined to the halls of Washington power. Some of the most public, colorful and unlikely opposition -- at least before Inauguration Day -- has flown from the keyboards of social media managers at the National Parks Service.
In the hours after Trump was sworn-in, the official NPS account retweeted a New York Times reporter's post showing, side-by-side, overhead views comparing attendance at the 2009 and 2017 inaugurals. Obama's crowd was, both in the images and reality, considerably larger than Trump's.
The post, which quickly went viral, did not sit well with the new administration and was soon deleted. A day later, Trump -- on his first full day in office -- called the acting NPS director to complain. The agency apologized in a subsequent tweet.
But it was too late. The NPS's tweak inspired similar acts of small bore, mischievous revolt at other, smaller outfits. Days later, the Badlands National Park account tweeted statistics about climate change.
"Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. #climate," one of the posts read, effectively subtweeting the President's environmental policies.
Like those before, the tweets were deleted in what, by the next day, had started to resemble a game of anti-Trump whack-a-mole. The Death Valley NPS, on Jan. 25, posted an image of a Japanese American man interned during World War II -- another clear rebuke to the White House, which was readying its immigrant and refugee ban.
The tweet is still online. And it has company. In the aftermath of the parks clash, so-called "alt-government" feeds, purportedly created and maintained by some combination of disaffected scientists, civil servants and activists, began to spring up on Twitter. There are now in excess of 50 accounts active across social media.
But their efforts, 12 days into a Trump presidency that will stretch on for years, faces new challenges up ahead. The administration will, inevitably, clamp down tighter on internal dissent and make it increasingly difficult for the rabble-rousers to keep their places in a rapidly changing — and less friendly — political firmament.