Photographer: Andrew Harrer

A Retiring Federal Lawyer’s Tips on Resisting Trump

  • Interior attorney tells staffers to ‘stand your ground’
  • Advises former co-workers to document, appeal to watchdogs

Before closing his 30-year career as a U.S. government lawyer last week, Eric Nagle delivered parting advice to his colleagues now working for Donald Trump: "You serve the president, but you don’t serve his every whim."

On the day he retired from the Interior Department, Nagle authored a widely forwarded e-mail counseling colleagues on how they could best resist from within during these "troubled times": documenting objections, appealing to the inspector general or publicizing their concerns through the press.

"Much that we have worked for seems in peril," Nagle, who specialized in endangered species law in the department’s Portland office, wrote in his Feb. 16 e-mail. "Don’t allow ‘alternative facts’ to trump solid scientific data."

In an interview Thursday, Nagle confirmed he wrote the missive, which was was obtained by Bloomberg News after it circulated both within and outside the department and was shared on social media. The tenor of the message, which began with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., underscores the unease among some rank-and-file government employees over the Trump administration’s direction.

Online Campaign

Scientists, analysts and lawyers at the Environmental Protection Agency lobbied against the choice of Scott Pruitt to lead the department through phone calls to their senators and social media. The union representing agency employees launched an online campaign against Pruitt’s agenda with the banner "Save the EPA." At the Energy Department, employees were so unnerved by a Trump transition team questionnaire seeking the names of workers who worked on climate policy that they leaked the document to reporters.

The episodes underscore the potential problems Trump administration officials could encounter when trying to make pivots in policy, such as the reversal of Obama-era climate regulations. To make sharp shifts the administration will rely on career employees to help justify the changes, and those could be delayed or fought from within.

While some employees may resist, the vast majority of career civil servants "understand that they are there to carry out the decisions that are made by leadership," said Jeff Holmstead, a top EPA official under former President George W. Bush. "The vast majority really do believe in carrying out the law."

Reagan Hire

Spokesmen for the White House and the Interior Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. After State Department officials registered their objections to Trump’s earlier ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said: “They should either get with the program or they can go.”

Nagle, a Democrat, began his career as a lawyer at the Justice Department under former President Ronald Reagan. He emphasized that he remains hopeful the Trump administration’s Interior Department will "follow the law," but he fears political pressure will be brought to bear on the government’s career civil servants.

Trump has vowed to curtail regulation in order to spur energy production and the economy.

Government lawyers vet whether proposed government regulations and policy actions are defensible, literally putting their names on the documents they believe are legally sound. Nagle asked his former colleagues in the Interior Department’s solicitor office to keep up the scrutiny.

"Don’t allow your name to be placed on a document that you know to be legally indefensible or scientifically unsound," Nagle said. "Document your objections for the record. And remember that you’re not alone. The Department of the Interior’s independent Inspector General is there to protect you. And so far, we still have a free and vigorous press."

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