In March 2017, shortly after taking office, Donald Trump took part in filming a documentary in which he, along with all of the living ex-presidents and other public figures, read aloud parts of the U.S. Constitution. Trump chose to recite the beginning of Article II, on executive power. But he struggled with the task.
“It’s very hard to do because of the language here,” Trump told the film crew, according to Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig in their book A Very Stable Genius. “It’s very hard to get through that whole thing without a stumble.” He added, “It’s like a foreign language.”
Now the former president, running to win his job back in 2024, has pledged to require federal workers to bone up on their constitutional knowledge to keep their jobs.
“I will require every federal employee to pass a new civil service test demonstrating an understanding of our Constitution,” Trump said in a speech before the North Carolina Republican convention Saturday. Members of the audience stood and roared their approval. Trump seemed genuinely surprised.
“Oh wow, look at that! Wow!” he said. “That’s nice. Nice that you believe in the Constitution.”
Trump’s own faith in the Constitution has appeared at times to be conditional. “We believe in the Constitution more than anybody,” he said in 2015. “But we can’t let people use and abuse our rights.” In 2021, he urged then-Vice President Mike Pence to bypass constitutional provisions on counting the votes of presidential electors to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
In late 2022, Trump argued that the Constitution could be ignored under certain circumstances. The “massive fraud” in the 2020 election, he said, “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
Trump’s knowledge of the specific provisions of the Constitution has at times been shaky. In a 2016 meeting with Republican lawmakers, he praised “Article 12” of the document, seemingly unaware that it contains only seven articles. In 2019, he declared that Article 2 of the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want as president.”
Actually implementing a constitutional test for federal employees would present several challenges. Civil service examinations, created under the 1883 Pendleton Act, became a condition for hiring for certain federal jobs. They were a routine part of the hiring process until 1981, when they fell victim to legal challenges that they discriminated against minorities. Now agencies rely on a complex set of evaluation tools and hiring authorities to determine who gets federal jobs.
Trump’s proposal, though, sounds less like a hiring requirement and more like a quiz that every federal employee would have to pass in order to keep their job. That would make it more like the test administered to those seeking to become U.S. citizens, which includes several questions on the Constitution.
Some federal employees might struggle to pass such an examination, but it’s unclear whether it could be used as a condition for government employment.
Tom Shoop is the former executive vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversaw editorial operations at Government Executive, Nextgov, Defense One and Route Fifty. This post was originally published by Government Executive.