White House 'purge' campaign hunts for those lacking loyalty to Trump

It's easy to marvel at a paranoid president on the hunt for possible skeptics, but there are also practical consequences to Team Trump's "purge."
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The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. The national weather forecast calls for severe weather for much of the US, including heavy rain from Washington, DC to Boston.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images

John McEntee, the 29-year-old Republican who now leads the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, apparently had a controversial meeting last week. According to Axios, McEntee "called in White House liaisons from cabinet agencies," and asked them to "identify political appointees across the U.S. government who are believed to be anti-Trump."

The story described a campaign with a McCarthyite flare: officials were supposed to be on the lookout for officials who may work for the Trump administration, and may be effective in their roles, but who may be suspected of being disloyal to Donald Trump.

It now appears McEntee's work is just one piece of a larger puzzle. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

President Trump has instructed his White House to identify and force out officials across his administration who are not seen as sufficiently loyal, a post-impeachment escalation that administration officials say reflects a new phase of a campaign of retribution and restructuring ahead of the November election.

The article paints a portrait of an increasingly paranoid president, who has loyalists "combing through various agencies," eager to "oust or sideline political appointees who have not proved their loyalty."

In the wake of the president's impeachment trial, there have been multiple reports on Trump targeting names on his "enemies list." This latest reporting is related, but not identical: the president isn't just content to cross names off his enemies list; he's also eager to find new antagonists he can add to his enemies list.

Or as the Post put it, "What began as a campaign of retribution against officials who participated in the impeachment process has evolved into a full-scale effort to create an administration more fully in sync with Trump's id and agenda."

The New York Times had a related report over the weekend, adding, "In some of the most critical corners of the Trump administration, officials show up for work now never entirely sure who will be there by the end of the evening -- themselves included."

It's an ostensibly professional environment -- which also happens to be the executive branch of the world's preeminent superpower -- in which officials have to look over their shoulders, wondering whether they may be accused of showing insufficient loyalty to Dear Leader. The Times' article added, "[C]areer professionals are not the only ones in the cross hairs. Also facing scrutiny are Republican political appointees considered insufficiently committed to the president or suspected of not aggressively advancing his agenda."

Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied presidential personnel, told the newspaper, "Trump appears to be launching the biggest assault on the nation's civil service system since the 1883 Pendleton Act ended the spoils system."

The Brookings Institution's Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who has been documenting the extraordinary staff turnover in the White House, added, "Many key departments and White House entities have been hollowed out."

And therein lies the rub. It's easy to marvel at a paranoid president and his loyalists on the hunt for possible skeptics in their midst, and it takes little effort to draw parallels between efforts like these and the tactics of megalomaniacal regimes.

But there are also practical consequences to Team Trump rooting out those who are suspected of insufficient loyalty to the president: there's a real risk that the White House will force out competent public servants who help the government function. Replacing skilled and proficient officials with flatterers and sycophants will apparently make the insecure president feel better, but when it comes to doing real work, no one benefits from an army of partisan toadies controlling the levers of federal power.

This is likely to get worse before it gets better. Axios ran a related report yesterday that added, "The Trump White House and its allies, over the past 18 months, assembled detailed lists of disloyal government officials to oust -- and trusted pro-Trump people to replace them."