“Those who received a paycheck from the Trump administration should not profit from their efforts to tear our democracy apart,” the site said. “The world should never forget those who, faced with a decision, have chosen to devote their money, time and reputation to separating children from their families, encouraging racism and anti-Semitism and negligently causing needless loss of life and devastation economic failure of our country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In other words: the old normal — where appointees could quietly return to Washington Village — was not welcome.
Suffice it to say that Washington’s response has not been positive.
Conservative supporters compared the effort to Kristallnacht and Stalin’s purges. In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn said “liberal operatives have been sending trial balloons about creating official lists of enemies.” But the skeptical reactions extended beyond Trump’s fan base. “An organized attempt by former Democratic officials to ban anyone who worked for the US government from the job during the Trump administration seems the exact opposite of the calls for unity and healing we heard from President-elect Biden.” , tweeted CNN’s Jake Tapper, not wrongly.
The project, it turns out, started out as something more limited. Dubbed Operation Rolodex, the idea was to create a searchable database of “Trump enablers”, documenting their alleged sins, something potential future employers could stumble upon via Google. “Our message is simple,” reads a flyer distributed to potential donors. “You can take off your MAGA hat, but you can’t erase your crimes.” (The document, which called for a $2.8 million budget that involved research, marketing and legal aid, also stated that “of the thousands of presidential campaign and administration staff, only a relatively small number were actively working to undermine democracy. Our focus will be limited to those whose actions and words can be verified and whose role is undeniable.”)
That kind of restraint didn’t exist when the idea hit social media, and within days the Trump Accountability Project declared itself kaput. Funding dried up as deep-pocketed donors rushed to distance themselves; even the January 6 insurrection, two months later, could not bring them back. Today the website is gone and the people who worked on the idea aren’t interested in speaking for the record. But the age-old question at the heart of the controversy — how and when should Washington avoid people? – remains relevant.
And in the coming weeks, as the city emerges from two years of social slumber, it will become even more important.
For years, Washington was a university you couldn’t live without. Sure, people have been fired from big jobs or pilloried in the media. But very few of them have been rendered socially or professionally toxic by even the most disastrous public service. The architects of Vietnam and the Iraq War went on to lead the World Bank. Name a Beltway scandal, fiasco, travesty, embarrassment, imbroglio, disappointment, disgrace, or minor boo and you’ll likely find the culprits employed somewhere in the vast universe of Washington’s post-government labor market.
In Washington’s calculus, this “you’ll-always-eat-lunch-in-this-town” logic is acceptable, and not simply for selfish reasons either. If you think public service is good for the republic, you probably don’t want it to be too easy to render someone unemployable just because they pursued a clumsy agenda or promoted a moronic candidate. While the turnover from assistant secretary to counsel can sometimes be grumpy, logic goes, it’s also necessary if you want the capital to attract talent and ambition.
Now, however, this venerable folkway collides awkwardly with another Washington article of faith: that on the importance of standards.
As American politics have hardened in recent decades, it has become almost cliché to worry about the withering of norms, those conventions and codes of behavior that aren’t written into law but that nonetheless make our democracy work. . Some of them are quite specific: you release your taxes if you run for president, for example. Others are more general: Don’t politicize federal investigations. Do not refuse supervision. Do not direct government policy for your personal gain. Don’t undermine faith in US elections.
As with written rules, the challenge with unwritten rules is the enforcement mechanism. Ideally, the electorate is the ultimate enforcement mechanism. But since few national elections are decided on, say, the proper treatment of State Department inspectors general, maintaining that standard depends on the work of a much smaller universe of people who know what an inspector general does. of the State Department. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to know that social stigma is a major way for any community to enforce its codes – vote with your guest list or your human resources department. It’s no surprise that people in the political communications industry want to influence the electorate, especially since that particular electorate is used to not voting the right way.
The problem, for those who would push Washington to adopt a more critical attitude, is how. A general approach may look – reasonably – like a blacklist, with all the bad associations that word conjures up. More specific approaches, like this on-the-shelf database of who did what, are expensive unless you find creative ways around them. Based on the logic that the first thing recruiters do is Google someone’s name, and the first thing that often pops up is an entry on Wikipedia, the nonprofit Protect Democracy, which had spent years criticizing alleged politicization at the Justice Department, hosted an “edit-a-thon,” which connected Wikipedia editors with relevant quotes describing people’s alleged wrongdoings.
And last week, another standards-rejecting effort made headlines, and this one met with far less tut-tutting. An organization called Project 65 showed up last week with a considerably narrower goal: It aims to disbar lawyers who worked to overturn the election. “We’ve identified 111 attorneys who were attached to the 65 fraudulent lawsuits that were filed to overturn the election, and they’re in 26 states,” said David Brock, the Republican-turned-Democrat provocateur behind the effort. “We take a systematic approach rather than an ad hoc one. It’s essential. We added the fake voters who are lawyers, and we added a handful of Trump’s legal advisers. Brock claims a budget of $2.5 million and has an advisory board that includes law professors and retired judges. He shared a list of goals broken down by state and post-election role.
There is a convenient difference, of course, between lawyers and ordinary political appointees: the former are licensed, which means there is a process for revoking their license. It’s not entirely clear: There remains disagreement over whether bar associations can oust someone for violating their standards in the public square rather than at work. But it is, at bottom, a question of process.
As to how Washington does or doesn’t rehabilitate people whose professions don’t require licensing, the jury is still out — and one of the legacies of Covid is that we’ve filed a slew of small daily social decisions that demonstrate someone’s position.
“On the question of ‘does the Washington company have a bottom?’, we don’t know yet,” says Melissa Moss, the longtime Democratic consultant who worked with Brock on the project. “The parties haven’t started yet.”