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Cabinet members often state that they serve at the pleasure of the President, and the President can fire any Cabinet member at any time, but can the Cabinet members legally and constitutionally ignore anything that the President tells them to do?

It seems that the implication is, that the President nominates someone who will do what the President wants them to do, even if the President can't actually order them to do anything.

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    The president usually will not give direct/explicit "order" (for political maneuver consideration) to his guys but express his wishes in meetings, and "the President can fire any Cabinet member at any time" is the motivation for them to listen to the president closely and cover the president if anything goes sour.
    – r13
    Sep 6 at 22:53
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    Kissinger-Nixon was maybe the best example of a SecState scheming and leaking against an embattled President. The Craft and Craftiness of Henry Kissinger
    – smci
    Sep 7 at 18:45
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    AFIAK there no law against ignoring the President. Of course you can be fired, as the answers explain. However, note that every employee takes an oath that "they will support and defend the Constitution". Not the President, the Constitution. They are thus at least ethically obligated to not only ignore illegal orders but do what they can to thwart them. This was not a problem during my term. Sep 8 at 15:03
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Cabinet members often state that they serve at the pleasure of the President, and the President can fire any Cabinet member at any time, but can the Cabinet members legally and Constitutionally ignore anything that the President tells them to do?

They ignore the president's will at their peril, because he can indeed dismiss them, apart from the vice president. For more information, see Wikipedia's article on the Tenure of Office Act.

It seems that the implication is, that the President nominates someone who will do what the President wants them to do, even if the President can't actually order them to do anything.

Why do you think the president can't order them to do anything? On the contrary, the president can order them to do lots of things. That's the essence of serving "at the pleasure of the president." If the president orders something they disagree with, they can resign, refuse to do it and see whether the president will fire them, or do it under protest.

Congress does delegate certain powers directly to various cabinet officers, but since the president retains the ability to dismiss those officers, the president exerts, or at least can exert, a significant degree of control over the conduct of cabinet officers.

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    I think it is semantics but in general when the President tells someone to do something, that person can ignore the President without suffering any legal consequences. In contrast, if a military officer orders a soldier to clean the latrine then the soldier can be incarcerated for refusing. If a police officer orders a citizen to put his/her hands up then the officer can arrest the citizen for disobeying.
    – emory
    Sep 8 at 23:57
  • The vice president isn't the only cabinet official the president can't fire; the Postmaster General is another.
    – Vikki
    Sep 9 at 0:10
  • @emory we're not talking about the general case, we're talking about cabinet officers. Yes, cabinet officers may in general ignore orders from the president without suffering consequences under criminal or civil law, but they risk being dismissed by the president. (Furthermore, it is not generally true that police can arrest someone simply for failing to follow an order to put their hands up; if the order is not lawful then an arrest arising from failure to obey the order is also unlawful.)
    – phoog
    Sep 9 at 0:10
  • @Vikki the postmaster general is no longer a member of the cabinet.
    – phoog
    Sep 9 at 0:13
  • @phoog every cabinet officer can ignore everything the president says until the president fires them. After they are fired, the president can order them to leave government property. If they fail to vacate government property, the president can have them arrested for trespassing.
    – emory
    Sep 9 at 0:50
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See Wikipedia's entry on the Cabinet. The Cabinet consists of the Vice-President, the head of each department of the Executive branch, and assorted non-department-heads who hold cabinet-level positions. They are appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress, and for the most part can be fired by the President at will, but otherwise run their respective departments independent of the White House. The President sets policy and political agendas and can issue executive orders, and cabinet members (as department heads) are expected to comply, but otherwise retain broad latitude to run their departments as they see fit.

This is a standard distributive power model used in most large corporations, where executives are placed in charge of different divisions or projects while a chief executive oversees the corporation as a whole. Each executive is responsible for the performance of his division, and is expected to compete with the other executives and contest with the chief executive for resources and authority. While some chiefs like to surround themselves with toadies and lapdogs, that is generally considered an unhealthy practice.

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    The information that I've discovered uses the term "nominate" for how the President determines who goes through the confirmation process, and the Senate actually "appoints" the Cabinet members. Article 2 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution actually uses the word "nominate." Quote: and he shall nominate
    – Alan Wells
    Sep 6 at 23:47
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    @AlanWells that is a partial quote. It's a compound predicate of which the second part is "and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint..." The president appoints as well as nominates, but the appointment may only be made after the senate consents.
    – phoog
    Sep 7 at 1:44
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To illustrate how much power the President wields, the best known example would be the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. Richard Nixon wanted the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate Scandal fired. He asked U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him and Richardson resigned rather than comply. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was asked to perform the same task and resigned. Finally Robert Bork (US Solicitor General who was third in line) did the deed.

Presidents can unilaterally fire people. Donald Trump fired James Comey, the FBI Director, largely because he felt Comey had betrayed him by stating Trump was under investigation for Russian interference. Jimmy Carter fired six cabinet members in one day. The catch is there's always a political cost to doing so (quote from the last article linked, quote makes reference to the Jonestown massacre)

“I do think people were ready to follow in those first days after the speech,” The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, who was the lead speechwriter on the address, later recalled. “And then there was the Cabinet Jonestown, and I think that’s where the elites turned definitively against Carter, and that trickled down before too long to everybody else.”

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