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The Ugly History Behind Trump’s Attacks on Civil Servants

Last week, as the House Intelligence Committee questioned FBI Director James Comey, it was as if two parallel hearings were taking place: one on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and one on the torrent of leaks emanating from sources throughout the federal government—what President Donald Trump’s allies are calling the “deep state.”

The claim that an entrenched federal bureaucracy is betraying American democracy is preposterous , but it serves the Trump administration’s objectives: As the president blames a disloyal federal workforce for the messes he has made, he is simultaneously rallying popular support to slash the federal workforce and revise U.S. Civil Service laws.

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Well before Trump proposed a budget that would result in widespread layoffs throughout the government, he promoted the idea that many federal workers are disloyal and pursue their own political agenda. He’s tweeted that “national security ‘leakers’ … have permeated our government for a long time.” In August, he suggested that high-ranking federal employees should be forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, worrying that they might otherwise author tell-alls about him. In January, after State Department workers began to use the long-established official “Dissent Channel” to voice their opposition to Trump’s travel ban, White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivered an ultimatum: they can “either get with the program, or they can go.” Conservative media outlets are piling on, too. Breitbart, the right-wing news site formerly led by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, recently published a top-10 list of “holdover Obama bureaucrats ” whom Trump should fire immediately.

Such partisan efforts to undermine public confidence in the integrity of government workers have a long and ugly history in American politics. Proponents of limited government have almost by definition been hostile to federal “bureaucrats”—the word itself has become a slur—but that hostility has been more broadly based and widely shared at certain pivotal moments in our history. When national security threats have coincided with rapid economic and social change, Americans have been more susceptible to demagogues peddling paranoid portrayals of politically and morally suspect civil servants.

We again are living in such an era. And if the past is any guide, the attacks on the Civil Service will become uglier.


Attacks on federal employees have long carried more than a whiff of emasculation, with the American ideal of rugged individualism weaponized against supposedly effeminate public workers bilking upstanding taxpayers. Since the “snivel service” reform battles of the 1880s, which made government employment contingent on qualifications rather than party loyalty, conservatives have questioned the masculinity of male government workers, casting them as non-entrepreneurial types who prefer to follow rules for modest pay rather than take risks in pursuit of profit. That the federal workforce was sexually integrated earlier than others invited further ridicule.

The Red Scare of the early 1920s—which followed waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration, black migration northward for wartime work, and women’s enfranchisement, not to mention the Bolshevik Revolution—included conservative attacks on government agencies, especially state and national labor and


Silicon Valley sends ambassador to Trump's coal country

PAINTSVILLE, Ky. — President Donald Trump won this state by a landslide after promising to reopen Appalachia’s coal mines and put its miners back to work. But here, along the banks of Paint Creek in eastern Kentucky’s legendary coal fields, some displaced workers are pinning their hopes instead on Silicon Valley.

And the celebrity of the moment is California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who came from the Valley’s deep-blue heart last week to see what this emptying corner of coal country might have to offer the technology industry — and how Appalachia can reap its benefits in the form of jobs and tech training.

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"It's just exciting for them to think what we're doing is interesting enough to make the trip," former coal worker and budding app developer Steve Bowling said in a cinder-block classroom in Paintsville — referring to Khanna and, by extension, the tech industry itself. "That means a whole lot to us."

The 40-year-old freshman congressman and son of Indian immigrants might seem an unlikely ambassador to a conservative region: He supports what he calls “common-sense” gun laws, not to mention the Obama-era energy regulations that the coal industry blames for shuttering dozens of coal plants in the past decade. But he hopes that by expounding upon the Silicon Valley success story across the U.S., he might help boost the economic prospects of places like Paintsville. And if he can convey the woes of non-coastal regions to leaders back home, the tech industry might find a way to steer where the country goes from here.

“The election was a wakeup call about how much discontent there is from technological progress and globalization, that it’s not just all a clear good thing,” Khanna said in his still-bare Capitol Hill office just before his trip, where he visited a training program for mobile app developers at Big Sandy Community & Technical College. And it’s time, he said, for an industry that has played a role in shedding American jobs — by advancing artificial intelligence, among other things — to invest in helping communities like this one share in the upside.

“There’s got to be greater empathy among those in Silicon Valley for some of the pain that has been caused,” he said.

At the same time, he’s looking to spread Silicon Valley’s aspirational spirit around a country in need of big thinking. “It's just getting people to dream that they can go try to be like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs,” Khanna said.

The 43-room mansion of John C. Mayo, a teacher-turned-entrepreneur regarded as the father of the eastern Kentucky coal industry, is now the home of Our Lady of the Mountains School. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

Khanna came here at the invitation Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers¸ a 79-year-old Republican who joined Congress the year Ronald Reagan moved into the White House.

Rogers' sprawling district is among the poorest in the country — ranked 432nd out of 435 in median per-capita income according to the Almanac of


The Year Nixon Fell Apart

We know what happened in the spring of 1972: Five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, were caught and arrested, and triggered the slow-dripping scandal that became known as Watergate.

But a full understanding of President Richard Nixon wouldn’t be possible without the events that came before Watergate, when the stress of the presidency—the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, the secret bombing and invasion of Cambodia, the deaths of four student protesters at Kent State, became too much. He was agitated, drinking, paranoid about the press—and in one memorable pre-dawn excursion, exited the White House without his aides, driven by a mix of memory and pain, to try and connect with demonstrators on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When his frantic staff at last caught up with him, he treated them to breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel.

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This chapter of the Nixon presidency is the story of how his tragic flaws caught up with him, of how he cracked in the crucible of the presidency. With foreign and domestic crises tearing the country apart, the always-distrustful, unstable, insecure president started going after his enemies.


The flag-draped caskets kept coming home . Opponents of the Vietnam War organized huge, nation-wide demonstrations in the fall of 1969—the Moratorium and the Mobilization—leaving Nixon’s White House in a state of siege.

Then, in March 1970, the pro-Western leaders of the Cambodian military staged a coup, overthrowing the neutralist Prince Sihanouk and prompting the North Vietnamese and the homegrown Communist Khmer Rouge to march upon Phnom Penh. Events drew Nixon into crisis mode. That spring would produce some of the most emotionally charged and dramatic moments of his presidency.

He was finding enemies everywhere: among liberals, the bureaucracy, on Capitol Hill and in the press. “We can have peace. We can have prosperity. We can have all the blacks screwing the whites,” and still not get credit from the liberal establishment, he would complain, in comments captured on his secret White House taping system. His orders sometimes sounded like the mutterings of a paranoid. “The press is the enemy,” he would tell his staff, and ordered aides to comb through the microfilm at the D.C. public library and compile every article by columnist Drew Pearson, dating back to 1946, that mentioned his name.

Work was Nixon’s medication. So was risk. The arduous quest for the presidency and the all-consuming exercise of its powers furnished relief. “He had no personal ability to get control,” his television adviser, Roger Ailes, recalled. “He was to live in a drama—in a Western: Nixon against the world.” Another aide, years later, came to the conclusion that Nixon sought crises like a gambler craves the game.

“He needed to tempt self-destruction,” said Monica Crowley. “He courted controversy intentionally … the thrill was in those few breathtaking moments when the dice were in the air.”

“Was Nixon paranoid? Yes,” said aide Dwight Chapin. “But he also had the right to be.”

In April 1970, an oxygen tank on


Need to reach Trump? Call Rhona.

When longtime friends and associates of President Donald Trump want to reach him, they don’t go directly to the White House. Instead, they call the woman who’s been the gatekeeper at Trump Tower for a quarter century: Rhona Graff.

Since Trump took office in January, Graff has become a conduit for those who want to quietly offer advice, make personnel suggestions or get on the president’s calendar when he’s at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The list includes investor Ken Langone and AIG chairman Hank Greenberg, whose assistant recently went to Graff about trying to set up a lunch with Trump, according to a person with knowledge of the call.

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POLITICO spoke to seven associates of Trump who still pass on messages to the president through Graff, most of whom requested anonymity so as not to risk their access.

“If I really wanted to whisper something in his ear, I would probably go to Rhona,” said New York grocery billionaire John Catsimitidis, who’s dabbled in New York Republican politics and has known Trump for decades.

Some of the calls are just a matter of habit for people who have dealt with Graff for decades—but some see her as a way to get around White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and others surrounding Trump in Washington.

Roger Stone, a Republican strategist and long-time confidant of Trump, described Graff as a favored point of contact for “anyone who thinks the system in Washington will block their access.”

“I go through Rhona,” said Stone. “She’s a woman of excellent judgment who reflects her boss’ views. She has to field requests from a lot of people.”

Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort also stays in touch with the president through Graff, though a person close to Manafort said “it’s so infrequent, it’s not worth the mention.”

“If I wanted to get something to Trump without calling his cell phone, I’d send it to Rhona,” said another confidant who goes through Graff to get to Trump. “Rhona is always going to be around.”

During the campaign, Graff was instrumental in coordinating Trump’s travel and personal schedule. She considered moving to Washington, but decided to remain in New York, where her daughter is in high school. Instead, she passes requests along to Trump’s personal assistant in the White House, Madeleine Westerhout, who was trained by Graff during the transition.

Graff declined to comment for this story.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters rejected the idea that Graff continues to play a role in connecting Trump with people outside his administration as “completely false.”

“All correspondence goes through the White House,” Walters said.

"Rhona is not a go around," Walters also said.

The White House is bound by the requirements of the Federal Records Act, which governs the preservation of all records including schedules and correspondence from the president, the vice president and their staffs in the National Archives.

“There is a duty of the president to document his service and his activities as


Mar-a-Lago doesn’t hide its presidential seal

PALM BEACH, Fla. – President Donald Trump doesn't need to be at Mar-a-Lago for his glitzy private club to feel like the winter White House. The reminders are pretty much everywhere.

Stacked high at the front desk, just through the wrought-iron door at the main entrance, are copies of the latest issue of the seaside resort’s glossy promotional magazine, complete with a two-page photo spread celebrating the club owner’s biggest triumph yet.

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"Road to Victory,” reads the article’s headline. “Eric Trump walks us through some of the memorable moments on his father’s path to the White House."

On most weekends since Trump’s inauguration, the president and his entourage have been spotted in the club, loading up plates at the breakfast buffet, mingling with dues-paying members, turning up in photos on guests’ Facebook and Instagram feeds.

Melania Trump’s turn came Friday night. The seldom-seen first lady and her son Barron are there for spring break, and she made a brief cameo to greet a cocktail reception hosted by the county Republican party.

More than 700 Republican power brokers, fundraisers and foot soldiers paid $300 for a seat or as much as $5,000 for a table to enter the latest gala of the season inside the gold-painted Donald J. Trump Ballroom. Attendees said it was the most overtly political shindig at Mar-a-Lago since its host moved into the White House.

Away from media cameras, First Lady Melania Trump was spotted leaving a VIP reception where she posed for photographs with guests ahead of the annual Republican Party of Palm Beach County's Lincoln Day Dinner on March 24 at Mar-a-Lago Club. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Over an open bar, filet mignon and scallops, guests mostly shrugged off the collapse, just hours earlier, of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, marking Trump’s biggest loss in the early days of his presidency. “I’m trying to focus on the positive,” Adam Putnam, the Republican former Florida congressman who now runs the state’s Agriculture Commission, told POLITICO. “Maybe a better product will come out of it by not having it be quite so hasty.”

Instead, attendees celebrated their party’s dominance in Washington. Florida Gov. Rick Scott regaled the crowd with stories about his trip last month to see Trump in Washington, where they had lunch and watched “La La Land” in the White House theater. “He doesn’t eat the most healthy foods, by the way,” Scott said. A video clip from the campaign trail played on two giant overhead screens showing Trump on the stump with "Silk & Diamond,” the North Carolina sisters who gained fame thanks to their viral YouTube videos talking up the then-billionaire presidential candidate.

The night ended with a raffle. Prizes included an Apple Watch, a 14-karat gold and diamond necklace and a return ticket to the president’s club for a seafood dinner.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott arrives as President Donald Trump supporters greet guests with a sign during the annual Republican Party of Palm Beach County's Lincoln Day Dinner

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