In a previously undisclosed conference call last year, a senior Justice Department official rejected key aspects of the Trump White House plan to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management, saying moves to abolish the crucial, little-known agency were unlawful. Those steps and others to undercut OPM could pave the way for installing political cronies throughout the ranks of the nation’s 2 million federal civil servants and weaken their protections.
In April 2019, Steve Engel, the head of the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel, told senior administration lawyers that it would be illegal to carry out a White House blueprint to dismember OPM, according to notes of the conference call obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan watchdog. That legal “opinion,” as the notes call it, was never shared with a House oversight panel that held two subsequent hearings last year on the White House proposal, according to a congressional source.
President Donald Trump’s firing last weekend of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, shows why civil service protections for career employees are important in shielding them from White House anger. Berman’s office has been investigating Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney. Unlike civil servants, Berman and political appointees lack these protections.