The dead man’s wife explained why the couple had ingested fish tank cleaner: “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?’” The bottle that killed Gary Lenius and sent Wanda Lenius to the hospital on March 22, 2020, contained chloroquine phosphate. Days earlier President Donald Trump had touted chloroquine as a possible “game changer” in the fight against Covid-19. “The nice part,” he assured the public, “is it’s been around for a long time, so we know that…if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.” Pharmacies saw alarming increases in prescriptions for chloroquine products.

In those first days of the pandemic, Trump repeatedly made dubious medical claims, in press conferences and on Twitter, that were then repeated on conservative television networks and social media. As the death toll rose, he sought quick solutions. During a press conference on April 23, 2020, Trump boasted that he had told the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, to find out if “disinfectant” could cure Covid-19 in humans, through “injection inside or almost a cleaning.” In the same press conference, Trump wondered aloud about ultraviolet light therapy: “Supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way.”

Birx remained silent, blinked rapidly, and looked down. She was wishing “for the floor to open up and swallow me whole,” she writes in Silent Invasion, her memoir of her time in the Trump administration. “I had come into the White House knowing that having the president’s ear would be crucial to my success…. I had to continue to ensure that science was at the decision-making table inside.” This may explain her decision to damage her credibility by vouching for Trump as he offered dangerous misinformation about a pandemic that eventually killed more than one million Americans. “He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data,” she told the Christian Broadcasting Network on March 25 that year. “And I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues.”

Birx, a physician, award-winning researcher, and retired Army colonel, had been in public service for more than four decades. In 2014 President Obama appointed her as the State Department’s global HIV/AIDS coordinator. In the White House, Birx was meant to be what Politico dubbed a “czar-like figure,” coordinating the pandemic response and reporting directly to the vice-president. Working in the chaotic Trump administration, however, meant that she had to jockey with other Trump appointees for the president’s attention, and her influence waned over time.

As a political appointee, Birx was not protected by federal laws restricting how and for what reasons career government employees can be fired. The White House could fire her for any reason, or no reason at all. If she had debunked Trump’s claims during the press conference, he would probably have fired her. By remaining silent, she kept her job.*

Trump has said that in a second term he wants to sidestep civil service laws that protect government employees from the kind of political pressure Birx faced in her temporary assignment. Those laws are meant to keep them loyal to the Constitution, the rule of law, and the public—not only the president.

Most of the government’s work doesn’t require political decision-making. Government scientists are supposed to follow science; government lawyers are supposed to interpret laws honestly and provide expertise for drafting regulations; other officials are supposed to disburse benefits, enforce laws, and protect public health and safety without political bias. Federal law prohibits the government from firing most federal employees for refusing to obey orders that would require them to violate any law, rule, or regulation. It also protects employees who report corruption.

If managers fire employees for inappropriate reasons like partisan affiliation, an independent agency called the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) can reinstate them. Another agency called the Office of Special Counsel can investigate and pursue charges with the MSPB when officials retaliate against whistleblowers or engage in other “prohibited personnel practices” (like making personnel decisions based on something other than merit, coercing political activity, or deceiving prospective candidates about their eligibility for federal employment). These protective measures pose a threat to a would-be authoritarian president, which is why Trump inveighs against his imagined “deep state.” Loyalty to America had no place in an administration that valued only personal loyalty to him.

Trump experimented with approaches to destroying the merit-based civil service over the course of his term, but his efforts peaked in October 2020 with an executive order that created a new category of federal employment called Schedule F. Employees transferred into Schedule F would no longer be covered by civil service protections, the administration claimed. Trump’s order paid lip service to retaining rules against various “prohibited personnel practices,” but there was a hidden catch: the Office of Special Counsel would no longer be able to investigate violations of these rules or to pursue action against those who committed them. Instead Trump’s political appointees would be responsible for policing themselves whenever an employee alleged that they had violated the rules. The order also exempted Schedule F positions from merit-based hiring rules, which would have allowed Trump to install loyalists. But he never got the chance to implement his order, which was issued just thirteen days before he lost the 2020 election. No employees were transferred to Schedule F before Biden took office and revoked it.


Trump has pledged to reinstate Schedule F if he is elected to a second term, and then to go further. According to Axios, the Heritage Foundation is leading Project 2025, a coalition of over one hundred right-wing organizations, directed by former Trump administration appointee Paul Dans; the group is drafting plans for Trump to launch on Inauguration Day. Presidents normally get to fill about four thousand positions, a number critics say is already too high compared to other Western nations. But proponents of the plan estimate that Trump could transfer roughly 50,000 federal employees into Schedule F, which would make them easily replaceable with his own picks. He may go further than that: “We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States,” Trump said at a March 2022 rally in South Carolina.

This isn’t just an employees’ rights issue. What’s at stake is democracy itself. The civil service laws protect the public as well, with vital everyday consequences. For instance, right now retirees and veterans don’t have to worry that their party affiliations will affect the processing of their benefits. Passengers on commercial flights don’t have to worry that air traffic controllers might strand them for hours if the airline’s CEO criticizes the president. Small firms don’t have to worry that they’ll be targeted for regulatory enforcement based on their leaders’ political views. Federal law enforcement agencies don’t have to take direction from politicians aiming to target their perceived enemies. All this could change.

The man who said he would be a dictator for at least his first day in office has been open about his authoritarian plans. They include prosecuting political opponents, imposing another ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, constructing massive camps to imprison up to millions of undocumented immigrants, undertaking mass deportations without due process, ending birthright citizenship, challenging the legislative branch’s constitutional budget authority, pardoning January 6 insurrectionists, taking revenge on federal officials who prosecuted him, and, he has promised, deploying the National Guard to American cities. In Trump’s first term, even his top political appointees balked at supporting some of his most egregious ideas. To pull off his assault on democracy in a second term, he will need more ruthless political appointees than he had the first time. He will also need to gut civil service protections to make key segments of the career federal workforce more loyal to him than to the Constitution and the nation’s laws.

Giving Trump absolute control over federal employees, including legions of prosecutors and law enforcement officers, will shatter one of the last major checks on presidential abuses of power. He’ll also want control over the internal lawyers at agencies throughout the government, for they are the referees who warn political bosses when the law prohibits things they want to do. Government will cease to function as a guardian of public safety and be transformed into the weapon of a rogue politician. Science will take a back seat to political ambition. The president will inject political bias into the delivery of services and benefits, possibly to the advantage of swing district voters at the expense of other citizens (liberals and conservatives alike). The president could hand out any of the government’s 2.2 million civilian jobs in exchange for votes or campaign funds, and he could order government employees to subvert election processes. With loyalists placed throughout the Justice Department and the government’s general counsel offices, who would be left to object?

Legal protections for civil servants in their current form date back to 1978, but they evolved over the last 140 years. Trump seeks to send the nation tumbling back to the dark days of nineteenth-century political patronage, the Jacksonian spoils system (from the old saw “To the victor go the spoils”). As President Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1895, the spoils system “was more fruitful of degradation in our political life than any other that could possibly have been invented.” In a January 1871 article, Jacob Cox, a former interior secretary, wrote:


The sloth and incompetence found in any Department now is known by the members of Congress to be in no small measure due to the fact that their own friends and dependents have been forced into places.

Corruption was rampant, from schemes facilitated by government officials after the Civil War to dodge alcohol taxes to the Crédit Mobilier scandal, in which railroad executives formed a shell company to inflate government contracts. The government lacked a fully professionalized corps of procurement officials with job security and whistleblower protections; instead, it had crooked party loyalists.

In 1883 the Pendleton Act finally began the spoils system’s downfall, helping to shore up competence and expertise by reserving 10 percent of government jobs for merit-based hiring and banning the practice of political parties assessing fees from those they placed in government jobs. That percentage of merit-based hires grew over the next several decades, as did the variety and strength of civil service protections. In 1912 Congress enacted a law mandating that firings of most career employees be for cause, though the system still lacked a comprehensive enforcement mechanism. By the mid-twentieth century most federal jobs were filled on the basis of merit and covered by for-cause firing requirements. As of 2024 there are only about four thousand patronage positions left in an executive branch workforce of 2.2 million.

The demise of patronage did not happen overnight; the process was uneven, with periodic setbacks. In the 1930s, for example, an independent commission of academics studied ways to improve the government’s workforce, focusing in part on the vestiges of patronage and their negative effects on federal, state, and local governments, offering this example during a 1934 congressional hearing:

There was a water tank that came crashing down through a nine-story building and killed a number of individuals. And it developed that the tank had been inspected three days before by an inspector of the city, who came in with his badge and made an inspection and everything else, and it turned out that he was a malt salesman, appointed in violation of the merit system, who was sent in and appointed to a ward leader, which resulted in a number of deaths, just because somebody thought it did not make much difference at all.

At an inquest into the accident, the malt-salesman-turned-safety-inspector reportedly testified that the water tank “looked alright to me when I inspected it.” Asked about his knowledge of safety inspections, he admitted that he did not have expertise: “I didn’t know anything about it…. I’m just the same as you or anybody else who might examine it.”

Trump’s chaotic time in the White House shows what would happen if career employees were replaced with patronage hires. His inept picks included a district court nominee who couldn’t answer basic legal questions, an acting director of national security who was more famous as an Internet troll than as a national security expert, and a top communications official for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who spouted conspiracy theories and didn’t like being alone in Washington because of the “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment.”

One of the clearest examples of the Trump administration putting politics ahead of competence was the case of Rick Bright, a career government scientist who led an office within HHS that Congress created to help handle public health emergencies. Unlike Birx, Bright resisted Trump’s pressure on federal agencies to authorize and support unproven coronavirus treatments. Citing mortality risks, he urged that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine drugs be administered only to hospital patients under the supervision of a physician. The administration retaliated by transferring him out of his job. As the Office of Special Counsel investigated Bright’s reassignment, Trump tweeted that he “should no longer be working for our government!” Bright sued under a whistleblower protection law that would not have applied to Schedule F employees, and the government settled the case in 2021. After Pfizer announced that its experimental Covid vaccine was 90 percent effective less than a week after Election Day, Trump said that the “medical deep state” had sabotaged him.

As Hurricane Dorian barreled toward southern states in September 2019, Trump incorrectly tweeted that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated,” contradicting previous reports. After fielding calls from confused citizens trying to reconcile the inconsistent information coming from the government, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office corrected Trump’s misstatement by tweeting that the hurricane was not forecasted to affect Alabama. The contradiction incensed acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who demanded that NWS’s parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issue a correction. Doubling down on his false claims three days later, Trump took a Sharpie to a map, altering the anticipated trajectory for the storm to align with his prediction. Under pressure from the White House, the NOAA released a statement that disavowed the forecasters’ correction. An inspector general report concluded that the possibility of forecasters’ delaying or second-guessing predictions could have “life-or-death” consequences and that “the Department unnecessarily rebuked forecasters for issuing a public safety message about Hurricane Dorian in response to public inquiries—that is, for doing their jobs.” Luckily, the forecasters had job protections that allowed them to tell the public the truth.

Trump’s response was even worse when another whistleblower exposed his attempted extortion of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during a call in July 2019, leading to his first impeachment. Trump retweeted a post that, without evidence, purported to name as the whistleblower a CIA employee, who was then deluged with online threats. He suggested that the whistleblower’s source, whom he called “close to a spy,” should be executed, referring to “what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason.” Amid Trump’s attacks, a Michigan man e-mailed one of the whistleblower’s attorneys, writing, “We will hunt you down and bleed you out like the pigs you are.” (He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.) Trump stopped short of firing the whistleblower; it’s not clear if he actually knew who the person was, and in any case the whistleblower’s compliance with procedures could have complicated the firing. Trump settled for firing Michael Atkinson, the politically appointed inspector general who received the report.

In the July 2019 conversation with Zelensky, Trump said threateningly of the former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, “She’s going to go through some things.” Trump allies had accused Yovanovitch of disloyalty to Trump and said she had rebuffed a Ukrainian prosecutor, Kostiantyn Kulyk, who had tried to link Joe Biden to Hunter Biden’s activities. (Last fall Ukrainian officials alleged that Kulyk was part of an organization that “carried out subversive informational activities in favor of the Russian Federation” under control of a Russian intelligence agency, the GRU, and in 2021 the Biden administration sanctioned him.) A year before the Trump administration recalled her from Kyiv to Washington, Trump was recorded at a donor dinner responding to associates who claimed she was critical of him, telling them to “get rid of her” and “take her out.” He attacked her on Twitter as she testified under subpoena during the first impeachment inquiry in November 2019. Two months later she retired.

Trump showed similar anger toward Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and Colonel Yevgeny Vindman. The former committed the offense of complying with a subpoena to testify before Congress about Trump’s call with Zelensky. (Yevgeny Vindman’s role in the Ukraine extortion affair, as an ethics lawyer for the National Security Council, appears to have been limited to dutifully notifying his supervisors of what Alexander reported regarding the call.) As punishment for Alexander’s compliance with the Constitution, Trump dismissed the brothers from the National Security Council and sent them back to the Army. Alexander alleged that Trump and his allies then continued a campaign of “intimidation and retaliation” by smearing him publicly, triggering an investigation of him, and delaying and attempting to prevent his promotion to full colonel. He says this forced his retirement in July 2020.

There is a neo-spoilist movement that is organized, well funded, and laser-focused on ushering in a civil service fully staffed with Trump loyalists. Project 2025 calls itself a “presidential transition project” but is really a plan to reshape the federal government and destroy civil service protections. At a November 2022 event sponsored by the Claremont Institute, a Project 2025 member, Trump’s former deputy assistant for domestic policy Theodore Wold invoked the memory of Andrew Jackson’s spoils system:

The mantra that you should have in mind is “we are failing unless we are disrupting, discrediting, and destroying these people.”… Until we adopt the Jacksonian approach, which is to throw the bastards out, all of them, we will still be living in the Progressive folk tale.

Project 2025 has published an 887-page playbook for the first 180 days of a second Trump term. It is steeped in the weird vernacular of conservative culture warfare, referring to “left-wing ‘experts’” in government, “the predatory deviancy of cultural elites,” and “the secret lifeblood of the Great Awokening.” To ensure that the right kind of thinkers lead the military, it advises that the National Security Council

rigorously review all general and flag officer promotions to prioritize the core roles and responsibilities of the military over social engineering and non-defense matters, including climate change, critical race theory, manufactured extremism, and other polarizing policies.

The playbook urges the next president to “defang and defund the woke culture warriors who have infiltrated every last institution in America.”

Another active supporter of Schedule F, the America First Policy Institute, assigned James Sherk, who developed Schedule F, to make the case for this transformation. Sherk collected stories from fellow former Trump appointees as evidence of deep state sabotage, which then made their way into a book called You Report to Me: Accountability for the Failing Administrative State, written by former interior secretary David Bernhardt, who is now also with the America First Policy Institute. Many of the book’s anonymous anecdotes are highly implausible. In one, Sherk claims that career officials in a major department skirted a Trump-imposed hiring freeze by backdating the start dates of new employees. He told an interviewer that they went about this defiance brazenly, “not even going into the computer, just with a Sharpie, a big black Sharpie.” This may be a case of projection, given Trump’s fondness for Sharpies: the government’s personnel system is entirely electronic, and altering a printout would have no effect on the hiring date in the system.

Sherk also says that career Justice Department attorneys refused to work on cases when they disagreed with the administration’s views, but here the very laws Project 2025 wants to abolish would have worked to the Trump administration’s advantage. The Merit Systems Protection Board has held from its earliest days that employees have “no right to refuse to abide by legitimate supervisory authority.” The federal appeals court that reviews the board’s decisions has affirmed that federal employees “may not refuse to do work merely because of disagreements with management.”

Another important member of the Project 2025 coalition is the Center for Renewing America, founded by former Trump White House budget director Russell Vought. Shortly after Trump issued his Schedule F executive order, Vought recommended moving 88 percent of the Office of Management and Budget’s nonpolitical employees into Schedule F. In February a federal union released documents showing Vought stretched the meaning of “policy-making” positions covered by Schedule F to include even relatively junior and administrative positions, potentially demonstrating that a second Trump administration could target far more positions than Project 2025 is saying publicly. Since then, Vought has continued to champion the order, railing against what he characterizes as a

weaponized bureaucracy that is armed and militant…a Barack Obama–, Joe Biden–infused hybrid, militant, woke and weaponized government that makes every decision on the basis of climate change extremism and on the basis of woke militancy.

Vought’s plans emphasize personal loyalty to the White House’s term-limited resident over loyalty to the nation and the Constitution. “Civil servants should be oriented to accomplishing the agenda of a president—not the office of the president, not their institutions,” he told NPR last year. In a letter to the Office of Personnel Management last fall, Sherk opposed the merit system by arguing that career federal employees “show little ideological divergence from Democratic party-political appointees,” revealing a sinister focus on party affiliation. Project 2025, according to The New York Times, is collecting résumés, aiming to build a database of 20,000 conservatives who want jobs in a second Trump administration. Admission comes with a test for radicalism. One insider told Axios, “They want to see that you’re listening to Tucker, and not pointing to the Reagan revolution or pointing to any George W. Bush stuff.”

“Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” Trump exclaimed at a 2023 rally. If his authoritarian revolution comes to pass, some of the first weapons drawn will be pink slips.