President Trump has spent nearly three years trying to bend the vast federal bureaucracy to his whims and demands, pushing out dissenters at the top levels while molding a Cabinet that caters to his obsessions as well as his political agenda.
The whistleblower complaint that helped launch the impeachment storm engulfing Washington is the starkest example yet that Trump has not prevailed.
At least some of the civil servants who make government work — law enforcement officials, intelligence operatives and others he derisively calls the “deep state” — are fighting back.
It’s not the first instance. Trump’s tenure has been uniquely marked by damaging White House leaks, a nearly two-year special counsel investigation, and multiple setbacks in federal courts on issues dear to the president, including immigration and the environment.
But the whistleblower who lit the impeachment cauldron by exposing Trump’s dealings with Ukraine used a tactic that the president had never confronted.
“The difference between leaking to the news media and going through the formal legal process is that it compels the government to actually do something about it,” said Donald Moynihan, a Georgetown University public policy professor who specializes in government administration.
The whistleblower, reportedly a CIA officer, originally approached a House Intelligence Committee staff member to ask for guidance about reporting his concerns. He was advised to file a complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general, activating legal protections against retaliation or disclosure of his or her identity.
The complaint accuses Trump of abusing his oath of office by pressing Ukraine’s president during a July 25 phone call to investigate Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. At the time, Trump had held up nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine.
A separate White House account of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky substantiated several major allegations in the still-anonymous complaint, while others remain under investigation.
Trump has focused his fury on the whistleblower, not the underlying phone call, and threatened to identify the individual. He repeated his charges in two separate, rage-filled sessions with reporters on Wednesday.
“This country has to find out who this person was, because that person’s a spy, in my opinion,” Trump said in the Oval Office, arguing that only “legitimate” whistleblowers should be protected from retaliation.
Trump has feuded with U.S. spy services since his election, once comparing them to Nazis after a controversial dossier of Moscow-related allegations was leaked. He publicly sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence conclusions during a news conference in Finland last year, and later said “the intelligence agencies have run amok.”
One of Trump’s allies caught in the impeachment crossfire, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, has vowed to limit cooperation. In an angry letter, he accused House Democrats of trying to “bully” State Department officials and said several would not testify as scheduled, but did not say whether he would fight a separate subpoena for documents.
But pushback has appeared at each step.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and an author of legislation that protects whistleblowers, issued a powerful defense of the whistleblower, warning against “uninformed speculation wielded by politicians or media commentators as a partisan weapon.”
And the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Louise Yovanovitch, a presumed witness to some of the events in question, has agreed to testify to the House Foreign Affairs Committee behind closed doors next week even though she still works at the State Department.
The former U.S. special representative to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, who resigned Friday, is also ignoring Pompeo’s restrictions. He is scheduled to give a deposition to the committee on Thursday that is likely to focus, in part, on what he told Zelensky before and after Trump’s phone call.
On Wednesday, the inspector general for the State Department took his own concerns to Capitol Hill. Democrats said he shared evidence of a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting Yovanovitch inside the department.
As Trump angrily defends himself, there are other signs of an emboldened resistance in other corners of the government.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, rebuked the Justice Department’s handling of a potential prosecution of former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe — a regular target of Trump’s ire — over allegations that he lied about leaking to the media.
In a court hearing over a related public records lawsuit, Walton said he was concerned about the delay in deciding whether to bring charges against McCabe or drop them — and thus delay the release of investigative documents. “While the matter hangs in limbo, it does undermine the credibility” of the Justice Department, he said.
Democrats and governance experts object to the term “deep state,” accusing Trump of demonizing government employees who uphold legal guardrails intended to prevent abuses of power.
“The ‘deep state’ is a ridiculous, ridiculous notion because in fact what modern bureaucracies do is they work according to the rule of law,” said Elaine Kamarck, who worked on government reform efforts in President Clinton’s administration and has since consulted for developing countries seeking to root out corruption.
Trump’s troubles are, in part, the consequence of his own chaotic management style at the White House, where he prizes loyalty over experience or expertise.
He has presided over record turnover by senior staff, a depleted and demoralized workforce in critical executive branch agencies, back-biting by those forced to compete for influence, and frustration by veteran officials who see their expertise ignored.
“This administration has always shown a disdain for any pattern and process around hiring and staffing and I think maybe all of that is coming home to roost right now,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who studies White House turnover patterns.
Trump, she noted, has already lost 78% of his original senior staff, far more than any of the five presidents who preceded him after their first 33 months in office.
The whistleblower, she added, “empowers others with concerns to come forward. We could be at a tipping point.”
In past scandals, Trump remained wildly popular with core Republican voters, and that doesn’t appear to be changing. But early polls suggest growing support for impeachment proceedings among independents who can swing an election, and congressional Republicans are watching.
“The crucial question mark is whether or not congressional Republicans are going to push back because that’s what ultimately sealed Nixon’s doom and that was a very late breaking thing,” said John A. Farrell, author of a 2017 biography of Richard Nixon, the only president to resign office to avoid certain impeachment.
Public opinion was slow to change during the two-year Watergate scandal, and it took the Supreme Court decision to hand over secretly recorded Oval Office tapes — with Nixon ordering a cover-up — to erode Nixon’s support on Capitol Hill. But the wall was never as solid as Nixon believed.
“Almost every institution to some extent did its job faithfully,” Farrell said. “Nixon really had counted on the awe of the presidency ... to intimidate them all. And it didn’t happen.”