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Resistance From Within

The Department of Energy is already fighting back against the president-elect. Will other civil servants follow?

About two weeks before Christmas, officials at the Department of Energy essentially told Donald Trump to go to hell. They were provoked by a lengthy questionnaire, sent earlier in the month from Trump's transition team, requesting the names of employees and contractors who had been involved with the Obama administration's efforts to combat climate change. Though he has signaled some malleability on the issue, Trump repeatedly dismissed manmade global warming as a "hoax" during his campaign, and has promised to withdraw the U.S. from the vital Paris climate agreement.

The questionnaire worried several employees, who believed it made them targets for marginalization — or, worse, firing — in the incoming administration. The DOE folks recognized the risk and rejected the request. "We will be forthcoming with all publically-available [sic] information with the transition team," a spokeswoman wrote in an email reported by the Washington Post. But, she added in bold, "We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team." Later that week, the Trump team disavowed the questionnaire, alleging that it wasn't "authorized" and attributing the blame for it to one person who "has been properly counseled."

These mysterious lone wolves must be a problem for Trump's transition team, given that the State Department got a similar list of demands only one week later. It requested staffers to submit all information about "gender-related staffing, programming, and funding." No individual names this time — Trump just wanted to know about any programs that "promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc." The State Department gave in.

It can easily seem like the fledgling administration is behaving like velociraptors in Jurassic Park, testing the fences of our republic for flaws they can exploit. Even when they're rebuffed, as they were by the Energy Department, it can feel like a delay of the inevitable. Somehow, some way, they'll break through that fence. And when they do, they'll go hunting. And not just for employees.

Immigrants, whom Trump scapegoated and demonized perhaps more than any other group during his campaign, were the focus of an exhaustive inquiry his transition team sent to the Department of Homeland Security. But department staffers weren't the target this time. Trump's people wanted to know whether those Homeland Security workers had been protecting immigrants protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. According to Reuters, they demanded to know "whether any migrant records have been changed for any reason, including for civil rights or civil liberties concerns." The only real reason someone tries to sniff out this information is if they're interested in tracking down those DACA folks.

As these Orwellian witch hunts are happening, government employees have a closer view than the rest of us. And with livelihoods that depend upon the nation's political tides, those who work for the federal government are less empowered — or less inclined — than most to speak out. When an incoming president targets employees who are merely working on issues that he doesn't like, however, it's time to realize that not only is significant resistance from within government necessary, but that it can work. What the Energy Department displayed was neither stubbornness nor a dereliction of duty. It was common sense.

There is little hope that the Republican majority in Congress will police Trump's kleptocracy and big-government agenda. And, left insufficiently checked, this will have disastrous consequences — especially for many of his own supporters. The Energy Department showed that resisting Trump for the sake of one's conscience and love of country must become the priority, even if what they accomplish may seem minor in the moment. These small actions and conspicuous defenses of principle will mean as much, or more, than any march, sit-in, or demonstration. If we see enough of them, that is.