- The Presidential Rank Awards are one of the nation’s highest honors for the federal government’s career civil servants.
- But the Trump administration is cancelling them this year, citing the COVID-19 pandemic
- During the past three years, Trump has issued several hundred of the awards, including recognition in 2018 to Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy. He later testified before Congress during impeachment proceedings.
Trump has accused the federal bureaucracy for working against him. He’s also amplified messages from QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believe the president will unleash a ‘storm’ against anti-Trump government officials, among others.
The Trump administration is canceling the Presidential Rank Awards, one of the nation’s highest annual honors for career civil servants that two years ago recognized a government official who later testified during President Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings, Insider has learned.
Trump himself typically selects more than a hundred winners among outstanding senior-level government executives following a rigorous nominating process. But this year’s ceremony won’t be happening, according to interviews and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Based on the pandemic and the response to it, we were told they were cancelled this year,” said Alan Boehm, executive director of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency and a member of the Presidential Rank Awards board.
A government official familiar with the award nomination process, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, also confirmed the cancellation.
The demise of the Presidential Rank Awards is “very disappointing” and a “missed opportunity” to honor the work of senior government executives tirelessly implementing COVID-19 programs alongside their other duties, said Jason Briefel, director of policy and outreach for the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of career federal executives.
Word of the awards’ cancellation surprised Briefel, who said he learned the news from an Insider reporter.
“We have public servants who are working incredibly hard during this time,” he said. “And we had a good relationship with the Trump administration for these first few years.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly strained the federal government’s resources, with Trump this year signing multi-trillion dollar coronavirus-related relief legislation. The Presidential Rank Awards come with cash bonuses that together total several million dollars.
But such an amount represents a tiny fraction of the federal government’s budget spending — $4.45 trillion in fiscal 2019. The Trump administration has meanwhile touted awards as a way to retain top government employees, with good stewardship of taxpayer dollars among the Presidential Rank Awards’ criteria.
In July 2019, OPM and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget also jointly released a memorandum addressed to all federal agencies that endorsed awarding high-performing executive branch employees.
“The ongoing use of awards and recognition throughout the year is particularly important as agencies address workforce challenges and look for opportunities to reward and recognize high performing employees and those with talent critical to mission achievement,” the memo stated.
White House spokesperson Judd Deere referred questions about the Presidential Rank Awards cancellation to the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the award nomination process. OPM did not respond to several messages.
On Monday evening, following the publication of this article, OPM senior adviser John York wrote in an email to the government’s Chief Human Capital Officers Council of its recommendation to the White House that the awards be canceled, citing “ongoing mission critical efforts to reopen the U.S. economy and government offices, and recognizing the financial strain facing many Americans during this time.”
It’s unclear whether the Trump administration intends to only cancel the 2020 edition of the awards or cancel the awards indefinitely, although York wrote that agencies should forward award nominees to OPM this month in anticipation of Presidential Rank Awards in 2021.
Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, blasted the Trump administration’s decision to cancel the 2020 awards.
“The Presidential Rank Awards recognize and reward federal employees who make government work better for the American people through hard work and innovation,” Beyer wrote in a tweet responding to Insider’s reporting. “What a terrible time to end a proud, successful tradition just so Trump can trash civil servants for the thousandth time.”
Honoring ‘extraordinary leaders’
Congress created the Presidential Rank Awards in 1978. They’ve been given out every year since, except for 2013, when President Barack Obama — to the chagrin of the Senior Executives Association, which hosts an annual gala in Washington, D.C., for award winners — temporarily canceled them. Obama cited budgetary concerns.
Nothing seemed awry with the Presidential Rank Awards in February, when then-OPM Director Dale Cabaniss officially called for nominations.
Nominees, she wrote, should be “extraordinary leaders who have made significant contributions in delivering mission critical solutions, providing excellent customer service and being good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars.”
The award nomination process proceeded as normal into March, according to an email exchange involving Boehm, Interior Department Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt, Federal Election Commission Inspector General Christopher Skinner and Corporation for Public Broadcasting Inspector General Kimberly Howell.
But OPM in late March suspended the award nomination process with an eye toward canceling the 2020 awards entirely, according to another email exchange among the inspectors general.
Insider obtained the emails through a FOIA request.
Cabaniss resigned in May, with Politico reporting at the time that she felt poorly treated by Trump loyalists.
Had the Presidential Rank Awards proceeded, OPM was slated to recommend award winners to the White House in August. Trump would personally make final award decisions in September, according to a copy of OMB’s 2020 Presidential Rank Awards program guidelines.
“The Presidential Rank Awards are among the most prestigious awards for federal employees and an important way to recognize exceptional public servants,” Greenblatt said Monday. “The nomination and award process is rigorous, so the recipients represent the very best in our government. I look forward to the resumption of the Presidential Rank Awards in 2021.”
Five percent of career senior-level federal government executives can receive the “meritorious rank” for their work, which earns them a cash award equal to 20% of their annual salaries.
Only 1% can receive the “distinguished rank” for “sustained extraordinary accomplishment” — and a cash award equal to 35% of their salaries.
The year before, in 2018, Trump presented Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy with a Presidential Rank Award. Sandy made headlines in 2019 for testifying before US House impeachment investigators about military aid the Trump administration had for weeks withheld from Ukraine.
‘Deep state,’ QAnon on Trump’s mind
The election-year rejection of the civil service’s annual awards is the latest example of the Trump administration squeezing a federal bureaucracy that the president has deemed as bloated and disobedient.
Trump himself has suggested his own government even houses shadowy elements conspiring against his presidency.
“We are finally putting America first. Yet the ‘deep state’ and the failed ruling class are trying to resist any changes to their failed policies of the past,” Trump said during a November campaign rally in Lexington, Kentucky.
In March, the president referred to the State Department as the “Deep State Department” during a White House press conference and soon after began peddling an “Obamagate” conspiracy theory that holds Obama and his allies are attempting a “coup” against him.
Trump has also heartened adherents to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which the FBI named in a May 2019 intelligence document as a potential terrorism threat. Trump, for example, hosted a QAnon advocate in the Oval Office, and last year he invited to the White House conservative social media influencers who promote QAnon content.
The last three-plus years have also seen a dramatic remaking of the federal workforce under Trump.
In June, the president issued an executive order that directs OPM to “review and revise all job classification and qualification standards” for competitive civil service jobs. The order says “skills- and competency-based hiring” should be a high priority akin to a college degree.
Trump has fired or marginalized several prominent inspectors general, the independent, internal government watchdogs tasked with addressing waste, fraud, abuse and potential illegality within the executive branch.
The president has also likewise frozen out Anthony Fauci from White House coronavirus deliberations after the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases publicly disagreed with Trump’s statements about the pandemic.