When to Quit: Lessons from Those Serving Our Government Today

When to Quit: Lessons from Those Serving Our Government Today
“I have heard many cries for Dr. Birx to resign on principle, or to publicly call out the president’s lies. No reasonable person would criticize her for doing so,” writes Shackelford, a former U.S. diplomat who resigned in protest of the administration. “So why does she stay?” (White House Photo / Andrea Hanks)

Civil servants face a stark, Hobbesian choice.

We are experiencing a global crisis of epic proportions that leaves no aspect of our economy or society untouched. Numerous departments, agencies and offices have critical roles to play in helping save American lives and livelihoods. For those who joined the government to serve, this is why they signed up.

But atop our federal government sits a man who has consistently undermined and obstructed our nation’s response to this pandemic. His suborned political party helped pave the way for abuse of office, politicization of assistance to states, and enrichment of his friends, family and allies—at no small cost to America.

We knew in February, with Trump’s acquittal, that no effective constraints remained on this president. Now, we understand the consequences of that, in very real terms.

What do you do under these circumstances, as a public servant? Do you continue to provide support to a rogue administration, at the risk of enabling dangerous policies? Or do you leave, abandoning your career and ensuring that whatever good you were able to do is then lost? The calculation for every individual will be different.

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I made my decision in 2017 and left my position as a career diplomat. I’ve honestly wondered since then why more people haven’t done the same.

When to Quit: Lessons from Those Serving Our Government Today
Elizabeth Shackelford is a former career diplomat in the U.S. State Department. In December 2017, she resigned in protest of the Trump administration. (Great Decisions)

Could anyone still do good and avoid being tainted by the lingering stink of this administration? The impeachment reinforced my assumption that, no, they couldn’t.

Trump has punished and retaliated against dozens of public servants for attempting to protect our country from dangerous and illegal acts—most recently with late-night firings of two inspector generals for deigning to exercise oversight.

If whistleblowers can’t save us, why would anyone continue to work for him?

This crisis has helped me answer that question. 

Our federal response to coronavirus has been inadequate and rife with missteps—but I believe the tireless efforts of career civil servants in institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the State Department and USAID will and have saved lives.

Career experts in the government stay on, in the face of trolling, threats and unending obstacles to progress mounted by their own leadership. Have they saved as many lives as they would have under better leaders? No—but would more lives be lost without the actions of some civil servants who stay? I believe so.

The question every public servant must ask herself is: Under the constraints of this administration, am I able to do more good than harm by staying the course?

Am I able to conduct my duties day to day without furthering political and personal interests, to the detriment of American ones? Am I inadvertently undermining our commitment to the American people by implementing dangerous policies during a public crisis? Do I play a facilitating role in obstructing oversight?

When to Quit: Lessons from Those Serving Our Government Today
An #OutNow protest in front of the Senate as the impeachment trial starts. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Every day in this administration, ordinary, apolitical civil servants implement policies that do harm—but every day, civil servants also do essential government work on which we all rely. In a pandemic world, that work can cost or save lives.

Consider the case of Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force and long-time public health expert with a stellar government career—until now. She has faced criticism for her tendency to publicly kowtow to Trump, going to great lengths to avoid contradicting him.

In April, her mealy-mouthed response to Trump’s lunatic claim that ingesting disinfectants could treat the virus brought her to a new low and raised real ethical questions about her role.

But it’s hard to imagine any benefit Dr. Birx encounters from this position. If anything, her professional credibility is now shot. So why does she appease this president?

Publicly embarrassing Trump with facts would no doubt prove cathartic, but in doing so, Dr. Birx would risk being removed from a job she is uniquely qualified to fill. In Trump’s sexist and vengeful world, Dr. Birx is particularly susceptible to Trump’s ire—in a way Dr. Anthony Fauci, with his gray hair, gender and less-threatening small stature—is not. Dr. Birx is forced to make greater concessions than would a man in her position in order to retain her position at all.

I have heard many cries for Dr. Birx to resign on principle, or to publicly call out the president’s lies. No reasonable person would criticize her for doing so.

So why does she stay? Is it simply a case of bureaucratic inertia, a good soldier doing her job and deferring to her boss regardless of the wisdom of it? Or is Dr. Birx making her own calculation each day, comparing the costs of doing what she must to stay with the benefits of what she, as an expert, is able to achieve towards the goal of better public safety? After all, our national response to this pandemic involves more than what we see on TV.

Like every other public servant, only Dr. Birx can judge if, on balance, her continued service does more good than harm, outweighing the dangers of her reluctant reinforcement of this administration’s lies. I resigned once I realized I could ensure that no longer in my position.

As the Trump administration grows bolder though, and as the checks continue to weaken, fewer federal employees will be able to answer this question affirmatively. Will Dr. Birx know when she has reached that point? Has she already?

For the good of the nation, I hope she is asking herself that every day, and that she has the courage to step down when stepping down becomes the only defensible answer.


Elizabeth Shackelford was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 when she resigned in protest of the administration. She served in Somalia, South Sudan, Poland, and Washington, DC. Elizabeth is a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age, published May 12 by PublicAffairs.