President Trump has declared war on his own government bureaucracy—whether it’s to pander to his base or to save his skin, this won’t end well.
Steve Bannon may be out, but President Trump takes to heart his former chief strategist’s desire to “deconstruct the administrative state,” gutting federal agencies like the State Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while rolling back key regulations. In November, he tweeted about the existence of a “deep state” at the FBI and Justice Department. Last week, he ratcheted up his attacks: “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.”
As Mueller and his team inch forward with the Russia investigation, an increasingly flustered president has launched an all-out witch hunt against the justice system that is reminiscent of the McCarthy era. Four top FBI officials have been forced from their jobs, including James Comey, the former director. Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June, and next reportedly on his hit list is Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Mueller’s boss. The third top-ranking official in the Justice Department, Rachel Brand, just announced her resignation after only nine months on the job.
Trump’s call for war against the federal government has been amplified by allies on the Hill, and a strident conservative media. The myth of a recalcitrant “deep state” permeates their messaging. “Having never fully recovered from the humiliating and shocking electoral defeat at the hands of political neophyte Donald Trump over a year ago,” bellowed Breitbart recently, “the Deep State and establishment media set to work immediately to reverse that intolerable outcome.” And Fox News talking head Sean Hannity has broken the news about “a second memo exposing Deep State corruption.”
Apparently, there is also an FBI “secret society within the establishment that was designed to get rid of Trump,” according to Senator Ron Johnson, a Trump booster who has breathlessly peddled these lies to reporters. A phalanx of fellow right-wing congressmen—including Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz, Duncan Hunter, and Francis Rooney—further ballyhoo the notion of a deep state conspiracy on the floor of the House. Nunes, who released the much overhyped memo aiming to undermine Robert Mueller, has now launched his own news channel to presumably further spread myths about an anti-Trump deep state.
The president and his radical right loyalists have gone off the deep end in their increasingly outlandish claims. This war on government bureaucracy is unprecedented, and Trump is playing with fire by arousing anti-government sentiment. In my 25 years at the State Department and other agencies inside the belly of the beast of the federal bureaucracy, I somehow missed encountering the deep state. (Perhaps it is concealed inside a secret society for which I didn’t have clearance.)
Of course, paranoia isn’t new to American politics. From the Salem witch trials, to the anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement, to the two Red Scares, Americans have often succumbed to fear of evil phantom forces during times of great social change. The historian Richard Hofstadter studied this phenomenon at length in his 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”:
The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
The debate among psychologists as to whether the current president is mentally unfit for office continues. But the same cannot be said of those who enable Trump and his many fantastical claims. Whatever their motives or beliefs, they are inflicting serious damage to the nation’s moral well-being and national security.
The attacks against the FBI are taking their toll on the agency. A Gallup survey at the end of last year showed that 49 percent of Republicans felt the FBI was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, down from 62 percent in 2014. Among Democrats, 69 percent approved of the FBI’s performance, up from 60 percent in 2014.
“Trump attacks the FBI which emboldens his supporters,” Frank Montoya Jr., a 25-year FBI veteran, told me. “And the baseless, unsubstantiated assaults coming from the ultra-conservative wing of Congress not only risks undermining public trust, which the FBI is dependent upon to do its job, but puts the rule of law at risk.” Another ex-FBI senior special agent said, “I’m encouraged by [FBI Director] Wray sticking up to the crazies. If he resigns, all hell will break loose.”
Potential damage to our national security is multifaceted. As former CIA officer John Sipher wrote in Politico, “the Nunes memo and breathless public statements hurt our standing in the world. Our intelligence collectors will have a harder time convincing potential sources or foreign liaison partners to trust us with their information.”
Diplomacy also takes a hit. Devin Nunes is now talking of next targeting the State Department, already weakened and demoralized by malign neglect. The repercussions are potentially very dangerous. As Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”
Trump’s war on his own government bureaucracy is unprecedented. The question then is, who will suffer the greatest damage in the long term: the government or Trump himself?
“There is no good ending to Trump’s presidency,” Trump biographer David Cay Johnston told me. If Trump loses in 2020 or is impeached, “he will continue to go around attacking the U.S. government. He holds loyalty to no one but himself, and he is trying every means to counter Bob Mueller.” The urgency to end this presidency and the damage it has wrought is clearer than ever.
“The next presidential election will be the most important one since the Civil War,” Johnston said.