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Why this career civil servant resigned over a Trump executive order

President Trump has promised to dismantle the federal government’s administrative state -- and made moves in that direction. Now, one of his political appointees has resigned in protest over an executive order that could strip protections from federal employees. Ron Sanders, who worked under presidents of both parties during decades as a civil servant, tells Amna Nawaz why he gave up his job.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump has promised to dismantle the federal government's administrative state. He has made moves in that direction, but he hasn't gone that far yet.

    Even so, just this week, one of his executive orders prompted a political appointee to resign in protest.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ron Sanders is a lifelong Republican who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents during his nearly 40-year career as a civil servant. He was appointed by President Trump to lead the Federal Salary Council in 2017.

    But he recently resigned from that post in protest over the president's executive order that could strip some protections from federal workers.

    Ron Sanders joins me now.

    Mr. Sanders, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thanks for making the time.

    That executive order from President Trump would essentially — or could essentially reclassify thousands of career civil employees, essentially turn them into political appointees and strip away some protections. You said that, for you, was a red line.

    Why? What worried you about that?

  • Ron Sanders:

    Well, you used the right word. It could. This is more about potential than reality.

    But this is a very sharp stick. And that's — that sharp stick is essentially what drew that red line for me. This could be used on one hand by an administration to burrow political appointees into the civil service. That's a common practice, usually done in small numbers. The executive order could enable that on a grand scale.

    And then the flip side of that is just as problematic, maybe even more so, and that is that it takes a lot of career civil servants, civil servants who are protected, so they can speak truth to power without fear of their jobs, and turn them into at-will employees, essentially like political appointees, so that, if a political boss wants them gone, they simply say, be gone, without any notice, due process or anything like that.

    And it was particularly that latter possibility that, frankly, drove me over that red line that we talked about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You wrote in your resignation letter: "The executive order is nothing more than a smokescreen for what's clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the president or, failing that, to enable their removal with little, if any, due process."

    I guess the pushback from that from the White House is that this is an executive order that can increase accountability, increase efficiency within Washington. And shouldn't the president be allowed to have people work for him that he wants?

    What do you say of that?

  • Ron Sanders:

    Well, it depends on your definition of accountability.

    Civil servants should be held accountable to very high performance standards. So, if accountability is to performance standards, I'm all for it.

    I don't believe that's the case with this executive order. I think, in this case, accountability is defined as political loyalty. And I will tell you that, while a president should have the right to have political loyalists around him or her, up to a point, you also need a career civil service, an apolitical, neutrally competent career civil service, that can provide advice and assistance, technical expertise, and, most importantly, speak truth to power without fear of their jobs.

    The political appointee doesn't need to accept that advice, but they shouldn't turn their back on it. They shouldn't try to quash it or chill it by placing these kinds of restrictions on career civil servants.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can I ask you about the timing?

    Because we are now days away from an election. If this behavior concerns you, or you find it alarming in some way, isn't it a little late to be raising red flags about that?

  • Ron Sanders:

    Well, the timing of the whole thing is odd. The timing of the executive order is odd, et cetera.

    Look, I think what may explain my own personal action is that this was a matter of conscience. I said that in the letter. Look, I had no intention of making this a cause celebre. I had no intention of the letter even going public.

    This was intended to be a letter from me to the White House Personnel Office saying: Enough. I can't serve this administration anymore.

    It wasn't intended to garner a whole lot of attention.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very briefly, if I can, Mr. Sanders, the president's been known to vocally and publicly criticize people who criticize him. Are you worried about any backlash?

  • Ron Sanders:

    Well, no.

    Look, I'm at the point in my life — as you can tell by looking at me, I have been around the block several times. I don't depend on the Federal Salary Council for an income. So, it was easy for me, frankly, to draw that red line, not easy as a matter of conscience, but, certainly, my economic livelihood was not at stake.

    For others whose livelihood may be at stake, that's much more problematic. And, again, that goes to the heart of why I'm so concerned about this executive order.

    You don't want people who are giving advice to the president, whether that president likes to hear it or not, you don't want people to fear for their jobs. And, again, I don't care whether they're speaking to a Republican president or a Democratic president. It's all the same.

    Career civil servants take an oath to the Constitution and the rule of law. They should be able to speak truth to power, without fearing for their jobs. That's just my personal view.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Ron Sanders, the now former head of the Federal Salary Council.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Ron Sanders:

    Thank you.

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