This week began with U.S. special forces killing the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and ended with a formal, party line vote in the House of Representatives to begin public impeachment proceedings. The road to both events involved the so-called “deep state.”
The infamous ISIS leader was killed during a daring raid based on intelligence provided by the very Kurdish forces President Trump had turned on two weeks before when he announced American troops were withdrawing from Northern Syria. The special forces operators were not Trump family members, they were not Trump political appointees, they were members of the military—part of the permanent government and members of a class of people Trump has repeatedly attacked as belonging to the “deep state.”
As the week wore on, more career diplomats and professionals defied White House orders and testified before the House Intelligence committee, adding fuel to the allegation that President Trump had violated the law by conditioning aid to Ukraine on help with investigations into his political opponents. The most damaging testimony came from Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, a career military officer, combat veteran, and Purple Heart recipient who was serving as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council. Vindman testified that the transcript of the now famous call between Trump and Zelensky was not full and accurate but rather had been edited to cover up the quid pro quo at the heart of the debate.
None of the actors involved serve at the pleasure of the president. They are members of the permanent government sworn to carry out the law. So, what exactly is the “deep state?” Is it a conspiracy by bureaucrats to thwart President Trump, as the White House argues, or is it the actions of bureaucrats pledged not to one president but to the impartial rule of law?
The term “deep state” has its origins in Turkey. According to the historian Ryan Gingeras, “The concept of the deep state is used to explain why and how agents employed by the state execute policies that directly contravene the letter and spirit of the law.” In the Trump administration however, the term has confused the “spirit of the law” with the personage of the president. Beginning with the Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order attempting to ban immigrants from certain Muslim countries, the Trump White House has repeatedly butted heads with the bureaucrats in Washington. It took several attempts and defeats in the court for Trump to finally get his executive order. Rather than convincing the White House that they should consult the experts in the government, this first run-in with the bureaucracy seems to have convinced Trump and his former counselor Steve Bannon that the deep state was out to get them.
Ever since then, the deep state has been a constant in the Trump lexicon and a constant in the right-wing press, reviled when it produces evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election but quietly accepted when it produces favorable unemployment statistics. As his term has worn on Trump has decided that a centerpiece of his legacy will be “the destruction of the deep state.”
Trump’s hostility to the bureaucracy is unusual to say the least. He is not the first and he won’t be the last president to be frustrated by the bureaucracy. I know, I had first-hand experience. As a senior White House aide in the Clinton administration I was working on reform of government. Every week I confronted something that couldn’t be done because of a law or a regulation. But Vice President Al Gore, who was in charge of this initiative, did not call the bureaucrats traitors or Republican sympathizers, he simply went about the business of seeing if we could change the law or the regulation. Some we did, some we didn’t. That is the experience of most presidencies—Democrats or Republicans—with the bureaucracy. It often feels like the whole rest of the government exists to say “NO.” But that’s because we are a government of laws, not a government of men and women.
The impeachment vote this week will open up a new phase of the impeachment inquiry—one that will clarify the role of the deep state. Rather than arguing about process, supporters of the president will have to confront the allegations of the career officials. Did the president act according to the law or didn’t he? Acting according to the “letter and spirit” of the law is what differentiates a sinister, out-of-control, “deep state” from a bureaucracy that governs according to laws rather than men.
Think of it this way. Suppose President Trump decided to pay a spontaneous visit to the Agriculture Department. There would be plenty of excitement and plenty of selfies. Suppose on that visit he said that he thought dairy price supports were a bad idea and should be stopped—immediately. What would the assembled bureaucrats do? Some courageous person would probably tell him that he would need to first change 7 U.S.C. 1431 before they could do that. And some people would no doubt start working on language to get rid of the law. What they would not do is stop processing payments to dairy farmers. Granted, in foreign policy the president has greater leeway, as Trump’s abrupt and ill-thought-out order to pull troops out of Syria illustrates. But adherence to law, rather than adherence to presidential whim, has been the defining characteristic of the United States and all other mature democracies.
In the weeks to come, the argument about the deep state will most likely move to the back burner if and when former Trump appointees begin to testify. Charles Kupperman, former deputy to National Security advisor John Bolton, has asked the courts to intervene on whether or not he has to answer a congressional subpoena. And expect John Bolton to wait for a congressional subpoena and perhaps do the same. In mid-November an anonymous writer will publish a book called A Warning. This is the same person who, in September of 2018 published a shocking op-ed in the New York Times about Trump’s “…half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.” He or she went on to say, “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.”
Adherence to law is what differentiates the deep state from the steady state. We should deep six the deep state.