The move was quickly denounced by Republican EEOC Commissioner Andrea R. Lucas, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump last year.
“I find the action taken today by the White House against our independent agency to be deeply troubling,” she said in a tweet, calling it an “injection of partisanship where it had been absent.”
The EEOC investigates workplace complaints on sensitive issues like those based on race and gender, which had become deeply politicized during the heated culture wars fanned by the Trump presidency.
The Trump administration sought to narrow civil rights protections for LGBTQ people by urging courts to overturn the EEOC interpretation, issued during the Obama administration, that discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity ran afoul of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Gustafson had raised the hackles of civil rights, LGBTQ and women’s groups during her confirmation hearing, by what they saw as “evasive” answers she gave about the rights of LGBTQ workers during her Senate confirmation hearing.
“Her evasiveness suggests that she is unwilling or reluctant to preserve the EEOC’s critical mission of defending LGBT people’s well-established legal rights,” several human rights advocates wrote in a 2018 letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the then-chair of the committee that deals with labor issues, and ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
While on the commission, Gustafson had been involved with anti-religious discrimination work.
“One of the issues she made as her hallmark, was the issue of discrimination against religious minorities, the law requiring religious accommodation of beliefs,” said David Lopez, who preceded Gustafson as general counsel under President Barack Obama. “Some lawyers from the conservative Christian right view this right as a conflict with requiring nondiscrimination against LGBTQ people.”
Gustafson did not respond immediately to requests for comment sent to her personal email and work voice mail. The EEOC and the White House did not return requests for comment. The White House request for her dismissal was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Lopez said he did not agree with the idea that Biden had violated a norm by dismissing her. He said he had considered a similar scenario before the 2012 election, contemplating his fate had Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defeated Obama, who had appointed him. He said he concluded that the right thing for him to do would be to resign.
“At the end of the day you serve at the pleasure of the president,” he said. “I think the norm that was violated was that she decided to stay. I’ve never heard of that happening before.”
The Post was shared an email that Gustafson sent EEOC staff to say goodbye Friday.
“I have for the first time, after 50 years of employment, had my first opportunity to experience what my terminated clients experience,” she said. “Whatever else it is, it’s good to have this firsthand perspective.”