Jul 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy
Inside Trump '25

Trump's revenge

Photo illustration of President Trump with an image of a man making a pledge overlayed on his suit jacket

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

President Donald Trump was attending the National Prayer Breakfast, but showing no sign of grace. Lips pursed, face alternating between anger and frustration, he lashed out at enemies who had brought him to the doors of impeachment. He brandished the day's newspapers, waving them above his head. The first headline: "ACQUITTED." The next: “Trump Acquitted." It was Feb. 6, 2020.

Close aides believed Trump had crossed a psychological line during his Senate trial. He now wanted to get even; he wanted to fire every single last "snake" inside his government. To activate the plan for revenge, Trump turned to a young take-no-prisoners loyalist with chutzpah: his former aide John McEntee.

By the end of that year, Trump also had a second tool in his armory, a secret weapon with the innocuous title, "Schedule F." The intention of this obscure legal instrument was to empower the president to wipe out employment protections for tens of thousands of civil servants across the federal government.

The mission for McEntee and the power of Schedule F dovetailed in the lead-up to the 2020 election as Trump planned (but lost) a second term and fumed over perceived foes.

If former President Trump runs again in 2024 and wins back the White House, people close to him say, he would turn to both levers again. It is Schedule F, combined with the willpower of top lieutenants like McEntee, that could bring Trump closer to his dream of gutting the federal bureaucracy and installing thousands devoted to him or his "America First" platform.

The reporting for this series draws on extensive interviews over a period of more than three months, with more than two dozen people close to the former president and others who have firsthand knowledge of the work underway to prepare for a potential second term. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive planning and avoid Trump’s ire.

Trump declined to be interviewed for this series. He is already facing campaign finance legal scrutiny for having hinted too much about his intentions to run in 2024 without yet formally declaring his candidacy.

When Axios asked for the former president’s response to this reporting, spokesperson Taylor Budowich declined to address point-by-point specifics. Instead, he said in a statement: “There are many people who want to see President Trump return to the White House, and the polls show that he is in a dominant position for 2024. However, anyone performing the important research and vetting that this story described is doing it at their own discretion.”

Meet the new boss

Trump's move in early 2020 to bring back McEntee, the then 29-year-old former presidential body man abruptly fired in 2018 by then-chief of staff John Kelly, would become one of his more consequential decisions. McEntee had been one of his favorite aides and Trump had long regretted allowing Kelly, whom he had grown to despise, to have his way.

After Trump's Senate acquittal, he gave McEntee an astonishing promotion to run the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. McEntee had no experience running any kind of personnel operation, much less such a significant post in the U.S. government. But Trump did not care.

He gave McEntee his blessing to start ridding the federal government of his enemies and replacing them with Trump people. McEntee was to ignore the "RINOs" who would try to dissuade him. He was to press ahead with urgency and ruthlessness.

At the president's direction, McEntee weeded out administration officials deemed to be disloyal or obstructionist. With Trump's unequivocal backing, he became more powerful than any personnel director in recent history. Trump had decided to ignore his more traditional advisers and to take an aggressive stance against anyone in his way — an approach he would surely replicate in any second term.

McEntee had the authority to overrule Trump's own Cabinet secretaries. He was able to hire and fire in many cases without their sign-off — and in at least one instance, without even the Cabinet secretary's prior knowledge.

In their place, McEntee and his colleagues in the personnel office recruited die-hard Trump supporters from outside Washington to serve in important government positions. Some had barely graduated from college and had few, if any, of the credentials usually expected for such positions.

They tested job seekers' commitment to Trump in informal conversations and they formalized this emphasis in a "research questionnaire" for government officials. One question on the form asked: "What part of Candidate Trump's campaign message most appealed to you and why?" Answers to such questions were prioritized over professional qualifications and experience.

“Red pills” and “blue pills”

McEntee brought a different mentality to the personnel office. He brought in "America First" conservatives who thought of themselves as having been "red-pilled" about the evils of the Left.

This was a reference to the 1999 dystopian sci-fi film “The Matrix,” where the main character was offered a choice between two colored pills — a red one to learn the dangerous truth of the world or a blue one to remain in ignorance.

McEntee's new recruits to the personnel office were ardently loyal to Trump and committed to his nationalist ideology — with especially hardline views on trade, immigration and foreign policy.

They believed, by and large, that the American republic needed saving from a range of domestic enemies and an embedded "deep state" sabotaging Trump from within.

A key recruit to McEntee's office was Andrew Kloster, a senior government lawyer previously at the Heritage Foundation. Kloster helped McEntee’s deputy, James Bacon, develop his questionnaire to vet government employees and overhaul the government’s hiring process.

Kloster described their approach in an interview last November on the "Moment of Truth" podcast — a podcast run by American Moment, a group developing an "America First" personnel pipeline for the next GOP administration.

"I think the first thing you need to hire for is loyalty," Kloster said on the podcast. "The funny thing is, you can learn policy. You can't learn loyalty."

Loyalty — to Trump and the "America First" ideology — was only part of the formula McEntee and his team wanted. They deliberately sought recruits not chasing a long-term career in Washington. They screened out anyone who seemed merely interested in maintaining a good reputation with the business community, K Street, or GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.

Kloster spent hours, sometimes over multiple days, conducting interviews and designing methodology to identify "someone who's not on the team."

A revealing question was to ask prospects where they ideally wanted to be promoted to in the government. If a job candidate wanted to work in "international finance" it set off alarm bells. "You hear about what jobs come with perks; and traveling a lot and networking with the 'Davos set' is not something someone genuinely civic-minded would angle for," Kloster told Axios.

A red flag went up if a prospective employee answered "deregulation and judges" when asked to name their favorite Trump policies. Kloster described this as "a shell of an answer." It was a sure sign the applicant could be a weak-kneed member of the establishment.

"This kind of answer isn't always a dealbreaker, but you want someone to take a risk and be honest with you about what problems they see as facing America," Kloster said. "A lowest-common denominator answer is the sign of an operator, a careerist."

Kloster wanted people harboring angst — who felt they had been personally wronged by "the system." The bigger the chip on their shoulder, the better. And if someone felt mugged, that was even better, as it would help drive their desire to break up the system.

"It's not just that being 'canceled' motivates a person; it's also that being canceled indicates a person knows the kind of heat that is brought to bear by the media, by institutions, and the public, and is probably better able to fight when the time comes," Kloster told Axios.

By late 2020, McEntee and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — working hand in glove — had org charts to plan a second term. They had a chart for each federal agency and they had them printed on large boards for review. One set of boards was in McEntee’s office and another in Meadows’ office.

They looked at positions further down in the bureaucracy in a second term — not just secretaries, but undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. They were thinking about people willing to break a little china.

One source on the edge of this work at the time said the plan was to bring tenacity and resolve to the first 45 days of a second term, by contrast to the missed opportunities of Trump’s first term. They had four years of experience to know what the pitfalls were.

McEntee also had explicit lists of top officials to fire and hire in a Trump second term. This was his road map for the future.

According to a source with direct knowledge of the lists, prominent names on McEntee's second-term "fire" list included the White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins.

But the "fire" list was just the start. To respond to Trump's demand to clean out the "deep state," McEntee would need far-reaching powers and a legal rationale to supply them.

He heard about something that might help him in the summer of 2020. There were low whispers in corridors by then that options were being developed to change the status quo in the civil service.

Origins of Schedule F

What was being quietly worked on — by a more technocratic group of Trump officials — was a novel legal theory. It would give the president the authority to terminate and replace an estimated 50,000 career civil servants across the federal government.

Its genesis was back in early 2017. Senior Trump officials had talked about the need to expand the hiring category typically reserved for political appointees so that they could fire — and replace — a much larger number of career government officials. But their early discussions were bogged down by bureaucratic and legal delays for two years.

The idea for Schedule F was hatched in January 2019 by a little-known official working inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, an extravagant building in the Second Empire style across the street from the White House.

James Sherk, an enterprising conservative ideologue on Trump's Domestic Policy Council, had been fuming for months about career officials across various agencies whom he believed were deliberately sabotaging Trump's agenda. He had heard stories from his colleagues and encountered elements of the resistance firsthand. The pushback included an uprising within the State Department against Trump’s hardline refugee policies.

The revolt was so intense that only 11 days after Trump took office, The Washington Post published a story that detailed "a growing wave of opposition from the federal workers" who were charged with implementing Trump's agenda.

From his standing desk inside the EEOB, Sherk began reading through federal statutes on Cornell Law School's website. He undertook a close reading of Title 5, the section of the U.S. Code that governed federal employees and agency procedures. He was searching for any openings in the law that might allow a president to fire career government officials who had protections that made it difficult and time-consuming to get rid of them.

Sherk researched the history of federal employment protections. Congress had passed the Pendleton Act in 1883 to reform the government. The goal of this law was to replace the patronage system with a nonpartisan civil service that would work across administrations, no matter which political party controlled the White House. The objective was to create a professional civil service. The idea was that over long careers, these government officials would accumulate invaluable institutional knowledge and experience that would benefit Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

What Sherk discovered, however, was that the Pendleton Act did not introduce the extensive removal protections that have made it so onerous for modern presidents to fire civil servants. Sherk learned through his research that those appeals rights were introduced much later, in a series of laws and executive orders passed between the 1940s and the 1970s.

Sherk shared the view of many conservatives that the "nonpartisan" system was a farce that helped Democratic presidents and stymied Republicans.

He could point to campaign donations — skewing Democratic among federal government workers — to argue that the federal bureaucracy, far from being nonpartisan, had too many embedded Democrats working to thwart Republican administrations.

Since leaving office Sherk, in his role at AFPI, published a lengthy report called "Tales from the Swamp" recounting ways that federal bureaucrats across multiple departments, including Labor and Justice, resisted implementing Trump policies.

A weapon to aim

Trump wanted a weapon to aim at these civil servants — to threaten them with their jobs if they stepped out of line. He wanted to be able to fire and replace them if they were disloyal or obstructed his agenda. Sherk was searching for the legal instrument to support Trump's aim.

In January 2019, Sherk found Trump his weapon, in Section 7511 of Title 5 of the U.S. Code. This section exempts from firing protections employees "whose position has been determined to be of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating character by the President for a position that the President has excepted from the competitive service."

It struck Sherk. The language in the Code was not limited to political appointees. The wording was "confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating."

Nothing, Sherk thought, stops us from putting career employees into this bucket.

Conservatives had long dreamed of applying these criteria to career staff as well as political appointees. Sherk's relatively untrained eyes saw a fresh path in the statute.

He was not a lawyer, but he had spent more than a decade working on public policy at the Heritage Foundation. He had also worked on more than a dozen executive orders for Trump, including a controversial decree that classical architecture be the default for federal buildings in Washington, D.C.

Sherk sent his idea to a lawyer in the White House Counsel's Office. Over the next few months, Sherk worked in secrecy with a small group of Trump political appointees and government lawyers to prepare what became the "Schedule F" order.

The final order would command agency leaders to compile lists of their staff who served in roles that influenced policy. These employees would then be reassigned to a new employment category, Schedule F, which would promptly eliminate most of their employment protections. The head of the federal government's HR division — the Office of Personnel Management — would have to sign off on the lists. And then these career civil servants could easily be fired and replaced.

Career officials across the government had no idea about the development of this extraordinary proposal to threaten their job security. Members of Congress tasked with overseeing the civil service were also in the dark. So were the federal workers' unions. Schedule F became one of the Trump administration's most closely held secrets.

Sherk and a small group of Trump political appointees worked quickly. They completed a draft of the order by late spring of 2019. They sent paper copies to senior political appointees at a few agencies to get their feedback. They gave these officials firm instructions not to share any details of the order with the career staff at their agencies.

Trump's top officials who were read into the planning were struck by the vast implications of Schedule F. But during the closely held policy process, several expressed concerns about the timing of the order. Trump's agencies had a huge workload coming up. Some officials thought it would be a bad idea to unveil the order and foment staff unrest.

The team decided to wait until 2020 to implement Schedule F. Then came COVID-19, which overtook the Trump administration and further delayed the order.

It took until Oct. 21, 2020, two weeks before the election, for Trump to finally sign the Schedule F order. The announcement was immediately drowned out by the noise of the final stretch of campaigning.

Few people had the bandwidth to pay attention to a new order with an anodyne title during the most chaotic election in recent history. Most Americans have never heard of Schedule F, let alone absorbed its vast implications.

The Washington Post published a detailed insider account of the evolution of Schedule F and the risks to the civil service within two days of the executive order.

But leaders in Washington were only barely awake to what Trump had done. Some of Trump's own agency leaders made no serious attempt to follow the Schedule F order. Trump had lost the election; his senior officials predicted incoming President Biden would immediately rescind the order. Some felt there was no point ruffling feathers on behalf of a doomed order.

However, one of Trump's hard-edged and most ideological agency heads — Russ Vought, who ran the Office of Management and Budget — wanted to lay down a marker. Regardless of the election result, Vought wanted to show what Schedule F could accomplish inside his own agency. Vought proposed reassigning 88% of OMB's workforce as Schedule F employees, with just two months left of Trump’s presidency.

Sounding the alarm

Some on the left did immediately grasp the significance of what Trump was doing and tried to sound the alarm.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing government operations, was one of them. He and other Democrats on the House Oversight Committee wrote a letter to Michael Rigas, head of Trump's Office of Personnel Management, describing what they viewed as the "grave" implications of the Schedule F order.

"The executive order is a harmful attack on the integrity of our government because it will permit the replacement of non-partisan civil servants with partisan Trump loyalists," the lawmakers wrote.

Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, representing more than half a million federal and D.C. government workers, understood the order's significance. He described Schedule F as "the most profound undermining of the civil service in our lifetimes."

"Through this order," Kelley said in a statement, "President Trump has declared war on the professional civil service by giving himself the authority to fill the government with his political cronies who will pledge their unwavering loyalty to him — not to America."

Trump was delighted. He sent Sherk a signed copy of the 2020 Washington Post front-page story, headlined "Assault on feds years in making." Sherk was also given the Sharpie that Trump used on Air Force One to sign the order. The newspaper, the executive order and the presidential Sharpie are now hanging framed on the walls of Sherk's office at the Trump-allied think tank, the America First Policy Institute. AFPI is one of the key groups — detailed in part one of this series — developing plans and personnel lists for a Trump second term.

President Biden struck back, rescinding the Schedule F executive order on his third day in office.

But if Trump returns to office in 2025, his plans to upend the civil service could realize the worst fears of the relatively few Democrats who grasp Schedule F's significance.

The fine print

Even if Schedule F is not reimposed — or if it comes back but is then limited by Congress or the courts — experts say there are already so many existing exemptions across the federal bureaucracy that a future president determined to pursue mass firings would have plenty to work with. Someone with Trump’s willpower will find a new methodology if Schedule F falls.

The system has become Balkanized over a matter of decades, with a hand from Democrats as well as Republicans, to the point where experts say there are effectively dozens of civil services — not one — all covered by separate authorities with different rules and protections.

Broadly speaking, the U.S. Intelligence Community is not covered by the so-called competitive service jobs appointed under Title 5. Thus, Schedule F wouldn't have the same impact because intelligence employees are already exempt from most protections.

Intelligence Community posts do have some due process rights — but those are typically developed within individual agencies, and they do not get to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. So presidents already have wide latitude to purge intelligence positions, so long as the agency head goes along and voters or Congress do not punish them.

Schedule F does not affect a category called the Senior Executive Service, which includes some of the most senior career government officials.

But agency heads could target those protected SES officials in other ways, sources close to Trump said. They could reassign them to backwater jobs or install political appointees and sympathetic career officials on performance review boards who could deliver adverse reviews that could lead to termination.

Some in conservative legal circles say that the major civil service laws dating to the 1800s are all arguably unconstitutional and that it should be up to a president who stays and goes on their watch. Testing the limits of that theory would put the question before the courts.

Trump's closest confidant in Congress, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), is excited about the prospects of mass firings in the second term of a Trump administration. He said in an interview with Axios that he had talked about it with another person close to Trump and that "the line that we talked about was, 'Fire everyone you're allowed to fire. And [then] fire a few people you're not supposed to, so that they have to sue you and you send the message.' That's the way to do it."

Since leaving office, Trump has mused often, publicly and privately, about the prospect of running for the presidency in 2024. He has obsessively followed Republican primary races and wielded his endorsement more prolifically and aggressively than any previous American president.

Trump rarely, if ever, talks about governing in his private conversations. Those close to him say this is partly superstition and partly the general lack of interest in governance and policy details that he displayed through his first term. But he remembers a disastrous 2016 transition and how he ended up with an administration full of people he disliked and distrusted.

The result of clashing personalities and ideologies was — predictably — incoherence, infighting, and wildly inconsistent personnel selections.

Some officials, like senior adviser Stephen Miller and social media director Dan Scavino, were unfailingly loyal to Trump and they backed his views on trade, immigration and foreign policy. This horrified the GOP establishment.

Other senior officials, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, saw their jobs as protecting the United States and the world from the commander-in-chief’s most extreme impulses. Thus the schism with Trump widened.

Below them were dozens of political appointees and thousands of career government officials who despised Trump, were appalled by his character, and fundamentally disagreed with his vision for the nation.

A new approach

Kash Patel, who is set to play an influential role in a second Trump administration, has described a new approach to ensure Trump does not repeat these mistakes.

"Everybody that gave us the [Attorney General] Bill Barrs of the world, that gave us [FBI director] Chris Wray, that gave us [former Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein, that gave us [former CIA director] Gina Haspel ... everybody that said 'these are Trump people' should be put on the list and we're never going to listen to them ever again," Patel said on a conservative podcast, "The Lee Smith Show," in April.

"That's Step 1," Patel said. "Step 2, you listen to guys that have proven themselves to be, I don't want to say loyal to the president but loyal to the democratic process. ... You need guys like [Trump loyalist and former director of national intelligence] Johnny Ratcliffe, Ric Grenell, Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, [Rep. Matt] Gaetz … you need folks like that."

Jim Jordan told Axios he thinks it likely Trump will bring back some of the final team who ran the Department of Homeland Security — such as Tom Homan, Mark Morgan and Chad Wolf — "because that was an agency that cleaned it up, did it right, secured the border."

Both Grenell and Patel are frequently cited as two Trump men who could expect big jobs in a second term.

​​Trump's hardline trade adviser Peter Navarro would likely get a big White House job, although Senate confirmation could be extremely difficult. Ratcliffe would be in contention to return as director of national intelligence or another top national security or defense post.

A source close to Trump added others trusted by Trump who could hope for significant roles include Robert O'Brien, who could be a contender to be secretary of state or defense, Russ Vought, and former Rep. Devin Nunes, who currently runs Trump's social media company. Trump would also welcome back Miller, Scavino and McEntee.

McEntee now lives in California and is working on building a dating app for conservatives — funded by billionaire GOP megadonor Peter Thiel. But he maintains strong ties to key people working in an array of outside groups on 2025 personnel projects, some of whom had worked for him in the Trump administration.

Signs and signals

Trump is alert to any signs of squishiness, especially on his signature issue: contesting the outcome of the 2020 election. He will likely bar hiring anyone who believes Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the United States. And he may declare ahead of time whom he will, and will not, pick.

Earlier this year, Patel joined Charlie Kirk's podcast to discuss what they both saw as the biggest failure of Trump's first term. Kirk is a Trump ally with substantial influence. He runs the college campus activist network "Turning Point USA," which regularly convenes thousands of "America First" students to watch speeches from Trump, his son Don Jr., and top GOP elected officials.

It is part of the wingspan of Trump's most active loyalists to conduct communications and signaling through podcasts with like-minded conservative media or former staffers from the Trump administration.

"So you think, the second term, one of the things has to be kind of a promise that Trump is going to make different personnel choices," Kirk said to Patel.

"Yeah," Patel replied. "And you know how you solve that? You build the book now. And I believe that that's in process and that's going.”

"Not only do you build the book now of who you're going to put in the Cabinet and deputies and undersecretaries, but then you make announcements on the campaign trail: 'If I win, this person is going to be head of FBI, this person is going to take CIA, this person is going to DOD,'" Patel added. "Show the voters that that is the individual you have identified to lead your Cabinet."

"I think that's terrific," Kirk said. "The same way he did the Supreme Court picks."

The large number of pro-America-First groups now stuffed with former Trump officials and staff will be in prime position to burrow back into a new Trump administration.

But all of this hyperbole and ammunition for a second Trump term ultimately depends on two unknowns: Will Trump run and can Trump win? They could be left high and dry if Trump does not run, or is beaten for the nomination by another GOP candidate less enamored with the Trump playbook. Or if the White House remains in Democratic control.

Read the first installment: "A radical plan for Trump’s second term."

About this series: The reporting for this series draws on extensive interviews over a period of more than three months. We spoke with more than two dozen people close to the former president and others who have firsthand knowledge of the work underway to prepare for a potential second term. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive planning and avoid Trump’s ire.

“Inside Trump ’25” is reported by Jonathan Swan with research and reporting assistance from Lachlan Markay, Andrew Solender and Sophia Cai. It was edited by Margaret Talev, Mike Allen, Aja Whitaker-Moore and Sara Kehaulani Goo, and copy edited by Eileen Drage O’Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo.

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