Forlorn liberals took refuge at the American Constitution Society's national convention in Washington this week, discussing whether to encourage the growth of the "deep state" resistance inside the government or fight President Trump from outside.
"The election of Donald Trump was an assault on the federal bureaucracy," William Yeomans said to a room full of students and civil servants, including those recently displaced by Trump's administration. "His values are simply not consistent with the values of people who are committed to public service and who believe deeply in the importance of public service."
Yeomans, an American University law professor with more than 25 years of experience at the Justice Department, was holed up inside the Capital Hilton hotel downtown on a sunny Friday afternoon leading a panel of bureaucrats and scholars divided about how best to fight Trump.
UCLA law professor Jon Michaels said he favors filling the Trump administration with liberals opposed to Trump's agenda.
"We hear a lot of language about draining the swamp and this idea about a deep state that somehow was going to thwart the intentions or the political mandate of the president," Michaels said. "I kind of embrace this notion of the ‘deep state.'"
Michaels listed his ideas for how to ensure the success of the "deep state." Act as a group — a department, across agency lines, as a community — rather than as an individual when pushing back against Trump from the inside, he said. Once such a coalition is formed, he suggested "rogue tweeting" or "leaking to the media" as options for fighting the president.
"It's hard to figure out exactly what [way is best], I don't think we've hit our stride on that," Michaels said. "But from my understanding people are still kind of probing and poking around at what can be done and the creativity and resourcefulness of people is in some ways boundless and so I imagine what I would hope to see is kind of organic, loyal opposition is probably too strong, but ways of having well-prepared, well-defined boundaries of opposition."
The anti-Trump career bureaucrats named the people in Trump's administration who appear to be causing the most consternation. Yeomans listed Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt as outspoken opponents to the mission of the agencies they have been tasked to run.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, a panelist alongside Michaels, worked for the EPA for 24 years butquit his job rather than pursue his quest for environmental justice from inside the Trump administration. He sounded conflicted about whether joining the "deep state" is a universally good approach.
"I think it's important to have strong folks both inside and outside [of government]," Ali told the room. "On the issues that I work on, that has always been a part of the overall strategy to be able to move forward."
He said he chose to leave government work after he determined Pruitt's actions would lead to Americans dying across the country.
"When I looked at what the administration and Administrator Pruitt were proposing, I knew that those values and priorities were vastly different than mine and the work and the communities that I had dedicated my life to for over two decades," Ali said. "I also knew because I believe in real talk that the choices that they were making were literally going to be devastating to those communities and they would actually cause more folks to get sick and unfortunately more folks were going to die, and I couldn't be a part of that."
Ali also said "there is some appropriateness" to leaking information to the media if the leak would reveal information about a matter that could cost lives.
While Ali and company debated how best to thwart Trump, other liberals at the convention planned the best way to go on the offensive.
At a discussion about "progressive federalism," Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken supported her left-wing colleagues' interest in becoming active at the state and local levels.
"Federalism is for everyone. I have been making that argument for a little while now, I find that progressives are much more attuned to that argument in recent months for reasons that you might imagine," Gerken tells the crowd. "But I just want to say to you, you fair weather federalism folks, welcome to the dark side."
Some speakers discussed bringing specific legal challenges for issues pertaining to civil rights that Trump's Justice Department likely would view differently than the Obama administration. But several speakers also challenged liberal orthodoxy on issues such as income inequality.
Yvette McGee Brown, a partner at global law firm Jones Day and former Ohio Supreme Court justice, encouraged the audience to build coalitions with conservative and Republican women on the issue of women's reproductive rights. She also said every national election cannot involve discussion of taxing the wealthy to single-handedly solve income inequality.
"We've got to figure out how to take the dollars that we're already sending to the government and figure out a way to make our communities better without demonizing people who make whatever they make and supporting people who need a leg up to get access to the middle class," Brown said. "It can't just be that if we have more tax dollars and we take it from people like me, who I don't apologize for what I make. I worked my ass off to get here and I don't want to pay more in taxes. I don't think that makes me a bad person."
Another liberal speaker took an even larger step away from liberal dogma. Terry Goddard, former Arizona attorney general and former mayor of Phoenix, praises the libertarian benefactor Koch brothers as "one of the great advocates for prison reform right now." Goddard showcased liberals' favorite bogeymen as having successfully "gone after city councils, school boards, secretaries of state and attorneys general" in a manner liberals should pursue.
Gerken, however, went to great lengths to warn that the liberal convention-goers cannot "lawyer our way out of this" problem of being in the minority.
"Politics are what matter more," Gerken told the crowd gathered in the hotel's Presidential Ballroom. "The reason why progressives are in the fix they're in is because they lost elections. They lost elections at the local and the state and the federal level and this is what happens when you lose elections. It's a mistake to think ... that law is going to save us."
While Gerken, Goddard and Brown discussed the left-wing ideas best capable of moving public opinion in their direction, it's clear that many of the attendees had not gotten over the results of the 2016 elections. During a panel session regarding immigration policy, American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney Jennifer Chang Newell described the aftermath of the election in post-apocalyptic terms.
"Basically the day after the election, I think a lot of us were walking around like zombies wondering what just happened," Newell said. "Feeling sad, depressed. Fear, definitely."
"One of the nice things about working where I work is that I went to work in the office the next day. Right away, [we] sat down and said what are the threats, what are the threats we need to start preparing for?"
Others in attendance could not bring themselves to utter the word "election" to describe the cause of Trump entering the White House. Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee member, referred to Trump's election win as only "the very unlikely results of what I call the 'incident' or the 'event' last November.
"Donald Trump's presidency is a stress test for our country," Hirono said during a speech she prepared for the convention. "And to survive this stress test, we must work to protect the independence of the federal judiciary and we must ensure that nobody is above the law."