Few jobs are ever easy. But the last year for the roughly 2 million federal employees of the United States has been more than just difficult.
For some, it’s been expensive. For many, it’s been demoralizing. And for the Foreign Service officers who came forward to tell the House Intelligence Committee what they knew about President Donald Trump’s conversations with the president of Ukraine during the summer, the year has felt downright dangerous.
The president has called federal employees everything from “Deep State” to “human scum” this year. But today, I’d like to simply thank them for their service.
It’s easy to forget, but 2019 began in the middle of what would become the longest government shutdown in American history and the third since 2013.
Faced with an impasse over money for the president’s border wall, Congress left town last December without funding about a quarter of the government, including salaries for 420,000 federal employees scattered across the country. While most were furloughed, 55,000 others, including staff at the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department, were required to work without pay anyway — and they did.
The jobs deemed “essential” really were just that. Would anyone in their right mind get onto a plane without an air traffic controller ready to tell your pilot when to take off and land?
And you probably didn’t give much thought to the security officers guarding federal prisons, or the FBI officers tracking suspected terrorists, but you were safer because they stayed on the job. Only a full ground stop at LaGuardia Airport in the president’s hometown of New York City ended the nearly six-week standoff in late January. Throughout the impasse, the jobs got done.
Government service domestically can range from the unpleasant (thank you, food processing plant inspectors) to the laborious (thank you, IRS, I guess), to the meaningful (Smithsonian and Park Service employees, we’re looking at you) and crucial (the intelligence community knows more about this than we do). But it’s hard to fully appreciate the commitment of Foreign Service officers until you’ve seen them at work overseas, often alongside members of the U.S. military, in areas of the world where few Americans travel.
The American public got a glimpse into the men and women of the Foreign Service this summer when several testified to Congress about what they knew about the events of the summer, when foreign aid to Ukraine stalled and President Trump pushed for an investigation there into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
For two weeks in November, a parade of Foreign Service officers, National Security Council staffers and political appointees, all sworn to uphold the Constitution, came forward to share what they had seen and understood about the events that were quickly becoming the basis of an impeachment of President Trump.
Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who had worked previously in Russia, Armenia and Somalia, told of being called back as the ambassador to Ukraine in the middle of the night and, later, of being “shocked and devastated” to learn that Trump had told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that she was “going to go through some things.”
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Bill Taylor, a West Point graduate and former ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush, was personally selected by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to replace Yovanovitch and testified later about a phone call tying the president to the aid’s delay. A Foreign Service aide detailed to Vice President Mike Pence’s office talked about the call she heard between Trump and Zelenskiy, which she simply called “unusual.”
In retaliation for their testimony, the president unleashed. He dismissed Taylor as a “Never Trumper ... (who I don’t know)” and “human scum!”
Williams, the Pence aide, was a “Never Trumper” too. “Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls..& work out a better presidential attack!” And even as Yovanovitch testified, this scorching tweet came from the White House. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”
The attacks from the president didn’t stop with the people testifying against him. In multiple tweets this year, he has warned that the entire federal government is a “Deep State” full of “spies” not only out to destroy him but to destroy America.
All of this chaos has come at a cost, even to workers who have nothing to do with Ukraine. A recent Government Executive survey showed that more than half of federal workers think the rhetoric about federal government workers during the impeachment has endangered their physical safety. One-third say it’s damaged morale in the federal workforce.
But while the president fondly remembered the days when he says whistleblowers used to be put to death for treason (they weren’t), the work inside federal agencies has gone on.
Even as the president suggested aloud that the longest-serving member of Congress, the late Rep. John Dingell, might be looking up from hell last week, front office phones were answered.
Hearings, like the one revealing the FBI’s own misconduct, continued in public.
Appropriations and authorization bills were passed, complete with a 3.1% pay raise for federal employees and, for the first time, 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal workers.
After the storm of anger, accusations and chaos of the last year, the president signed both measures.
Thank you for your service.