The scariest new catchphrase of the Trump era – and we’re only one month in – is the “deep state,” a term borrowed from countries like Turkey and Egypt, where networks of military officers and intelligence operatives control much of the government.
Last week, President Trump complained that “illegal leaks” from the FBI and other intelligence agencies forced him to fire his national security advisor, Michael Flynn.
The leaks revealed that Flynn had secretly discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador, then falsely claimed he hadn’t. The talks didn’t bother Trump; the leaks did.
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” he tweeted. “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!”
In a country controlled by the deep state, members of the armed forces and intelligence agencies can overthrow presidents they don’t like.
Others worried, too. Republican members of Congress condemned the leaks as a misuse of classified information. Critics of the intelligence community, both conservative and liberal, warned that unelected bureaucrats were exerting too much political power.
Was the American deep state, panicked by Trump, revealing itself?
“The intelligence agencies are pretty hard to roll,” a former top CIA official told me last week. “These guys are trained to manipulate people and overthrow governments, and they’re rather good at it.”
But no, this wasn’t the deep state seizing power. We’re not there yet.
In a country controlled by the deep state, members of the armed forces and intelligence agencies can overthrow presidents they don’t like; that’s what happened in Egypt in 2013. They hold veto power over major decisions. They often run large parts of the economy, or at least enough government contracts to make their families rich. And they’re rarely held accountable for their actions. They act with impunity.
U.S. intelligence agencies, on the other hand, are restrained by law. Sometimes they overstep, but eventually they are reined in. The officials who leaked the details of Flynn’s conversations knew that Trump would order the FBI to track them down. They put themselves at risk.
Trump’s problem isn’t the deep state; it’s the broad state. He’s facing pushback not only from intelligence agencies, but from civilian bureaucracies, too.
When his White House staff drafted an executive order to reopen CIA “black sites” and reintroduce torture, it leaked – and the decision was promptly put on ice.
When they drafted another order to repeal protections for LGBT federal employees, that leaked too – and the president’s daughter and son-in-law blocked the idea.
When Trump banned travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the attorneys general of several states sued, and federal courts blocked the order’s enforcement.
There have been less-dramatic forms of defiance, too. Bureaucrats in the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency have signed petitions protesting the new administration’s policies.
In a different category, Trump’s own Cabinet appears to harbor a modest dose of dissent: Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sound distinctly less enthusiastic than their boss about cooperating with Vladimir Putin.
Just about every segment of the federal government has struggled against White House actions it didn’t like, and when you add up all those varieties of resistance, it begins to look almost like a Resistance. But — and this is crucial — there’s no central power organizing or directing the fight.
It’s not unusual for a new Republican administration to encounter recalcitrant bureaucrats in domestic agencies like the EPA, or for a Democratic president to clash with hawks in national security agencies. In 2009, for example, President Obama believed the Pentagon tried to force him to send more troops to Afghanistan than he wanted.
But Trump and his chief theoretician, Stephen K. Bannon, have taken aim at both sides: not only Democratic bureaucrats, but also much of the Republican establishment. The bureaucratic resistance they’ve met has been unusually bipartisan.
The result, especially in the wake of Flynn’s ouster, has been chaos. The National Security Council is leaderless and understaffed. Domestic agencies are gripped by uncertainty, too, a state that induces self-protective bureaucrats to move even more slowly than usual.
“The main danger in a Trump presidency is not that it will be too strong, but that it will be too weak,” Jack Goldsmith, an assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, argued last week. “The U.S. government cannot work well … without a minimally staffed, well-organized, energetic, competent executive branch. Right now we don’t have such an executive branch.”
We may still be heading for several kinds of trouble: an international crisis with an unready NSC, a constitutional crisis if Trump ignores a court order he dislikes. But a shadow government? It’s a peril to guard against, to be sure – but it’s far from the biggest danger we face.