‘Deep state’ versus a president? It didn’t begin with Trump.

Why We Wrote This

The impeachment inquiry against the president hinges on testimony from people deep in the federal bureaucracy. But an entrenched administrative state isn’t necessarily ominous. It’s a reality all presidents face.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives to testify behind closed doors as part of the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 17, 2019.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The House impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump appears to be advancing rapidly amid swirling chaos in Washington. On Thursday, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified that President Trump put Ukraine policy in the hands of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani – a move he said he disagreed with.

A political appointee and former Trump donor, Mr. Sondland is not the sort of person the administration might consider a “deep state” representative.

But many of the officials who have broken ranks and testified behind closed doors in recent days are career civil servants. And President Trump has attributed the entire impeachment inquiry to a conspiracy of partisan bureaucrats buried in the permanent government of the United States.

He’s hardly the first president to become frustrated by the vast apparatus of the U.S. government. Yet, as the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals showed, trouble comes from attempting to bypass the administrative state to get stuff done.

“The examples of pushback we’ve seen have not been partisanship, as he claims, but rather unwillingness to act as partisans on his behalf,” says Rebecca Ingber, a former State Department attorney who is now a Boston University law professor, in an email.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly attributed the impeachment inquiry against him to a conspiracy of left-leaning bureaucrats buried in the permanent government of the United States.

“Another whistleblower coming in from the Deep State!” he tweeted pointedly in early October, following news that a second federal foreign policy official with knowledge of Ukraine dealings was considering seeking the protection of whistleblower status.

The first whistleblower appears to be a government national security analyst of some sort who alleges that the president leveraged the powers of his office for personal political gain. And many of the officials who have broken ranks and testified behind closed doors in the House in recent days are career U.S. civil servants.

But that doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy. It reflects instead the size and diversity of the vast apparatus of the American government, where political appointees loyal to President Trump are just a skim coat on top of the permanent bureaucracy.

All presidents at some point become frustrated by the difficulty of steering this behemoth, which answers to Congress and the courts as well as the executive branch. Trouble can come when they or their staff try to bypass the administrative state to get stuff done – particularly if their priorities are of questionable legality. The Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals both had roots in presidential-level attempts to skirt normal government channels.

“The irony about what we have seen thus far of [President Trump’s] depiction of the bureaucracy as a deep state cabal out to get him is that, to the extent he faces actual hurdles to his agenda from the career bureaucracy ... the examples of pushback we’ve seen have not been partisanship, as he claims, but rather unwillingness to act as partisans on his behalf, which is not their role,” says Rebecca Ingber, a former State Department attorney who is now a Boston University law professor, in an email. In this case that includes “questions from the foreign service about his efforts to compel Ukraine to investigate his political opponents.”

Fast-moving inquiry

The Democratic-led House impeachment investigation into whether President Trump attempted to leverage U.S. influence and aid money to persuade the Ukrainian government to open inquiries into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son appears to be advancing rapidly amid swirling chaos in Washington.

President Trump’s sudden decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria prior to a Turkish incursion in the area infuriated Democrats and Republicans alike, and led to an overwhelming House vote condemning American acquiescence in an attack on Kurdish allies. On Wednesday, a White House meeting with congressional leaders on the subject degenerated in an extraordinary scene. President Trump hurled low insults at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and his former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, among others; Speaker Pelosi responded by telling President Trump, “with you all roads lead to Putin” – meaning Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified to House impeachment investigators that President Trump put Ukraine policy in the hands of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Sondland said he disagreed with this, but implemented it because it was the express wish of the president.

“Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine,” said Mr. Sondland in his opening statement.

Political appointees, too

Mr. Sondland is not the sort of person the administration might consider a deep state representative. He was a major Trump donor in 2016 – he donated $1 million to the inaugural committee – and a political appointee to his EU post.

Nor is he the only person from the political level to break ranks and defy a White House blockade to give House testimony that at the least reflects badly on Trump Ukraine policy. The president’s top adviser on Russia, Fiona Hill, testified earlier that National Security Adviser John Bolton called Mr. Giuliani “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”

But federal bureaucrats have been crucial to the House probe so far. The whistleblower, whose identity remains unknown, is one. Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified to what she felt was the use of U.S. power for personal aims. George Kent, a senior State Department official in charge of Ukraine policy, said he was isolated from decisions dealing with the country in May – a move he called “wrong.”

The phrase “deep state” has been used by scholars of regimes such as Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan to describe the power of entrenched elites, typically military or intelligence officials, who secretly wield the states’ real administrative powers.

But its meaning is elastic. In the U.S., scholars and experts use it to describe many aspects of the permanent government, from the allegedly sinister to the avowedly banal.

“The government needs a certain competence to do what it has to do. To do that, it relies on career officials who know the ins and outs,” says Donald Kettl, academic director of the LBJ Washington Center at the University of Texas and an expert in government organization.

New administrations are often suspicious of the permanent bureaucracy’s loyalty. This is particularly true for Republican administrations, which have a dimmer view of government power to begin with, and face a civil service they believe to be heavily Democratic.

Under President Trump, this suspicion has reached new heights. White House rhetorical attacks have ramped up to higher volumes in the face of the rapidly moving impeachment inquiry.

“What you are seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats, who are saying I don’t like President Trump’s politics, so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt,” acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said at a Thursday press conference.

Running the government is complicated, however. It’s not easy for newly appointed political executives – especially if many appointee jobs remain vacant, as they have under President Trump.

Permanent bureaucracies can point out the risks and rewards of certain policies. ​The potential disaster along the Turkey-Syria border – a high-risk situation despite Vice President Pence’s announcement of a “cease-fire” deal with Turkey on Thursday – points out the incredible complexity of the Middle East and the need to be aware of pitfalls.

“We can see the effects now of not paying attention to those warnings,” says Dr. Kettl.

A bias for the status quo?

Ultimately, the federal bureaucracy is biased not so much ideologically as in favor of the status quo, say governance experts. Many presidents may mistake the latter for the former.

But secretive attempts to circumvent the friction of using normal channels can lead to trouble – and scandal. 

President Richard Nixon, fed up with leaks and angry about his enemies in the permanent government, set up the White House “Plumbers” to plug leaks and attack his foes. The Reagan administration, frustrated at its inability to fund Nicaraguan rebels, initiated a complicated workaround that produced the Iran-Contra affair.

President Nixon, in particular, was a chief executive who had paranoid aspects and was obsessed with alleged conspiracies working against him. Like President Trump, he was an outsider, says Zachary Jacobson, a Cold War historian and author of the forthcoming book “On Nixon’s Madness.” He grew up poor, was awkward and unsocial, and never a member of the elite cliques.

To him, the deep state was the entire U.S. establishment, not just the permanent bureaucracy. To carry out what he wanted done, he formed the secret Plumbers, named because one of their duties was to stop press leaks. That core produced the Watergate break-in, meant to get dirt on Democratic National Committee chairman Larry O’Brien, among others.

But while President Trump sees himself as an outsider, he doesn’t really have President Nixon’s ideological anger, says Dr. Jacobson.

President Trump’s conception of the deep state seems to include the press, Washington elites, and other groups that might look down on a loud, crass Queens-born billionaire. 

“The thing is, he is dying for the deep state to love him,” says Dr. Jacobson. “What he sees as wrong about it is it being against him.” 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.