Magazine | March 11, 2019, Issue

Survival at the White House

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 19, 2019. (Jim Young/REUTERS)
The administrative state took aim at Trump, but it has not been able to destroy him

No one in Washington called Donald J. Trump a “god” (as journalist Evan Thomas in 2009 had suggested of Obama) when he arrived in January 2017. No one felt nerve impulses in his leg when Trump talked, as journalist Chris Matthews once remarked had happened to him after hearing an Obama speech. And no newsman or pundit cared how crisply creased were Trump’s pants, at least in the manner that New York Times columnist David Brooks had once praised Obama’s sartorial preciseness. Instead, Trump was greeted by the Washington media and intellectual establishment as if he were the first beast in the Book of Revelation, who arose “out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.”

Besides the Washington press and pundit corps, Donald Trump faced a third and more formidable opponent: the culture of permanent and senior employees of the federal and state governments, and the political appointees in Washington who revolve in and out from business, think tanks, lobbying firms, universities, and the media. Or as the legal scholar of the administrative state Philip Hamburger put it: “Although the United States remains a republic, administrative power creates within it a very different sort of government. The result is a state within the state — an administrative state within the Constitution’s United States.”

Since the U.S. post-war era, the growth of American state and federal government has been enormous. By 2017, there were nearly 3 million civilian federal workers, and another 1.3 million Americans in the uniformed military. Over 22 million local, state, and federal workers had made government the largest employment sector.

The insidious power of the unelected administrative state is easy to understand. After all, it governs the most powerful aspects of modern American life: taxes, surveillance, criminal-justice proceedings, national security, and regulation. The nightmares of any independent trucker or small-business person are being audited by the IRS, having communications surveilled, or being investigated by a government regulator or prosecutor.

The reach of the deep state ultimately is based on two premises. One, improper government-worker behavior is difficult to audit or at least to be held to account, given that it is protected by both union contracts and civil-service law. And, two, a government appointee or bureaucrat has the unlimited resources of the state behind him, while the targeted private citizen in a federal indictment, tax audit, or regulation violation not only does not, but is assumed also not to have the means even to provide an adequate legal defense.

In theory, the deep state should have been a nonpartisan meritocratic cadre of government officials who were custodians of a civil service that had often served Americans well and transcended changes in presidential administrations. The ranks of top government regulators, justices, executive officers, and bureaucrats would take advice, and often be drawn, from hallowed, supposedly apolitical East Coast institutions — the World Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Federal Reserve, Ivy League faculties, Wall Street, and blue-chip Washington and New York law firms.

In fact, the deep state grew increasingly political, progressive, and internationalist. Its members and cultural outlook were shaped by the good life on the two coasts and abroad. And every four or eight years, it usually greeted not so much incoming Republican or Democratic presidents as much as fusion-party representatives with reputable résumés, past memberships in similar organizations, and outlooks identical to its own.

Then the disrupter Trump crashed in.

While the deep state was far too vast to be stereotypically monolithic in the Obama and Trump years, it was a general rule that it had admired Obama, who grew it, and it now loathed Trump, who promised to shrink it. Moreover, Trump did not, like most incoming and outgoing politicians, praise in Pavlovian fashion the institutions of Washington. Nothing to Trump was sacred. During and after the campaign, he blasted the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, and Department of Justice as either incompetent or prejudicial.

When Trump cited the Department of Veterans Affairs, it was to side with its victims, not its administrators or venerable history. In Trump’s mind, the problem with federal agencies was not just that they overreached and were weaponized, but that their folds of bureaucracy led to incompetency.

Trump was not so much critical as ignorant of the deep state’s rules and its supposed sterling record of stable governance. Trump proved willing to fire lifelong public servants. He ignored sober and judicious advice from Washington “wise men.” He appointed “crazy” outsiders skeptical of establishment institutions. He purged high government of its progressive activists. And he embraced deep-state heresies and blasphemies such as considering tariffs, questioning NATO, doubting the efficacy of NAFTA, whining about federal judges, and jawboning interest rates. He also left vacant key offices on the theory that one less deep-state voice was one less critic, and one less obstacle to undoing the Obama record.

In the meantime, establishment institutions provided the seasoned opposition to almost everything Trump did. They were likely the “senior officials” to whom an anonymous New York Times op-ed writer referred when he talked about an ongoing “resistance” inside the government to thwart the Trump agenda. In the conservative old days, a Republican president could call upon New York and Washington pundits and insiders — in the present generation, names such as David Brooks, David Frum, Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, or George Will — for kitchen-cabinet advice. But now they were among Trump’s fiercest critics. Only in the matter of judicial appointments could Trump find seasoned and experienced conservatives eager to be appointed or advanced, and respected organizations such as the Federalist Society eager to help him ensure conservative justices.

As an initial result, Obama holdovers lingered everywhere in the executive branch and cabinet offices. They had no immediate desire to leave when obstruction, if caught, only won accolades. Almost immediately, Trump’s private phone calls with foreign leaders such as Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull were leaked to the press and appeared as transcripts in the Washington Post.

In the 1970s, the military officer corps and the top ranks of the CIA, DOJ, and FBI were, in the eyes of the Left, synonymous with conspiracies like those in Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate. Yet in 2016, these same institutions had been recalibrated by progressives as protectors of social justice against interlopers and bomb throwers such as Donald Trump. Whether it was scary or needed to have a secretive, unelected cabal inside the White House subverting presidential agendas depended on who was president.

During the Robert Mueller investigations, progressives usually defended the FISA-court-ordered intercepts of private citizens’ communications, despite the machinations taken to deceive FISA-court justices. Indeed, liberal critics suggested that to question how the multitude of conflicts of interest at the Obama DOJ and FBI had warped their presentations of the Steele dossier to the courts was in itself an obstruction of justice or downright unpatriotic.

News of FBI informants planted into the 2016 Trump campaign raised no eyebrows. Nor did the unmasking and leaking of the names of U.S. citizens by members of the Obama National Security Council. Former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper soon became progressive pundits on cable news. While retaining their security clearances, they blasted Trump variously as a Russian mole, a foreign asset, treasonous, and a veritable traitor.

Both became liberal icons, despite their lucrative merry-go-rounds between Washington businesses and government service, and they sometimes lied under oath to Congress about all that and more.

On March 17, John Brennan, in objection to the firing of deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe (who shortly would be found by the nonpartisan inspector general to have lied on four occasions to federal investigators, and was soon reportedly in legal jeopardy from a grand-jury investigation), tweeted about the current president of the United States: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history . . . America will triumph over you.”

In mid April, Brennan followed up with another attack on Trump: “Your kakistocracy [rule of the “worst people”] is collapsing after its lamentable journey. As the greatest Nation history has known, we have the opportunity to emerge from this nightmare stronger & more committed to ensuring a better life for all Americans, including those you have so tragically deceived.”

If such hysterics from the former head of the world’s premier spy agency and current MSNBC/NBC pundit seemed a near threat to a sitting president, then Samantha Power, former U.N. ambassador and a past ethics professor on the Harvard faculty, sort of confirmed that it really was: “Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.”

Trump was warned by friends, enemies, and neutrals that his fight against the deep state was suicidal. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, just a few days before Trump’s inauguration, cheerfully forecast (in a precursor to Samantha Power’s later admonition) what might happen to Trump once he attacked the intelligence services: “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

Former administrative-state careerists were not shy about warning Trump of what was ahead. The counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd, who had worked in the CIA and the FBI under Robert Mueller, warned CNN host Jake Tapper in August 2017 that “the government is going to kill” President Donald Trump. Kill? And what was the reason the melodramatic Mudd adduced for his astounding prediction? “Because he doesn’t support them.” Mudd then elaborated: “Let me give you one bottom line as a former government official. The government is going to kill this guy. The government is going to kill this guy because he doesn’t support them.” Mudd further clarified his assassination metaphor: “What I’m saying is government — people talk about the deep state — when you disrespect government officials who’ve done 30 years, they’re going to say, ‘Really?’”

It was difficult to ascertain to what degree Mudd was serious or exaggerating the depth of deep-state loathing of Trump.

Despite the predictions and expectations of nearly everyone associated with the establishment, in the first two years of his presidency, Trump has not resigned. He has not been impeached. He has not been indicted. He has not died or been declared non compos mentis. Trump did not govern as a liberal, as some of his Never Trump critics predicted. He had not been driven to seclusion by lurid exposés of his womanizing a decade earlier as a Manhattan television celebrity.

An administrative state, swamp, deep state, call it what you wish, was wrong about Trump’s nomination, his election, and his governance. It was right only in its warnings that he could be crude and profane, with a lurid past and an ethical necropolis of skeletons in his closet — a fact long ago factored and baked into his supporters’ votes.

At each stage, the erroneous predictions of the deep state prompted ever greater animus at a target that it could not quite understand, much less derail, and so far has not been able to destroy. By autumn 2018, the repetitive nightly predictions of cable-news pundits that the latest presidential controversy was a “bombshell,” or marked a “turning point,” or offered proof that “the walls were closing in,” or ensured that “impeachment was looming on the horizon,” had amounted to little more than monotonous and scripted groupthink.

Never before in the history of the presidency had a commander in chief earned the antipathy of the vast majority of the media, much of the career establishments of both political parties, the majority of the holders of the nation’s accumulated personal wealth, and the permanent federal bureaucracy.

And lived to tell the tale.

–This essay is adapted from Mr. Hanson’s new book, The Case for Trump, which Basic Books will publish in March.

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