The Trump administration, in its fight against the “deep state,” could risk exacerbating the very problems it has pinned on shadowy bureaucratic forces: leaking, internal conflict and the politicization of institutions like intelligence agencies.
American institutions do not resemble the powerful deep states of countries like Egypt or Pakistan, experts say. Nor do individual leaks, a number of which have come from President Trump’s own team, amount to a conspiracy.
The diagnosis of a “deep state,” those experts say, has the problem backward.
Mr. Trump has put institutions under enormous stress. He has attacked them publicly, implied he would reject intelligence findings that cast his election in a poor light, hobbled agencies by failing to fill critical positions and cut off bodies like the National Security Council from shaping policy.
That has forced civil servants into an impossible dilemma: acquiesce, allowing their institution to be sidelined, or mount a defense, for example through leaks that counter Mr. Trump’s accusations or pressure him into restoring normal policy-maker practices.
Those defensive acts have deepened perceptions in the Trump administration of a “deep state” that must be rooted out. This tit-for-tat cycle, scholars say, risks substantially weakening both Mr. Trump and government institutions. In the long term, they warn, this could undermine the government’s ability to function — and to serve the millions of Americans who depend on it.
A Repurposed Term
Though Mr. Trump has not publicly used the phrase, allies and sympathetic news media outlets have repurposed “deep state” from its formal meaning — a network of civilian and military officials who control or undermine democratically elected governments — to a pejorative meant to accuse civil servants of illegitimacy and political animus.
It is akin to Mr. Trump’s appropriation of “fake news,” a term that originally described rumor mills but one that he has used against any outlet that reports real news unfavorable to his administration.
Much as his use of “fake news” miscasts reporting as lying, “deep state” presents apolitical civil servants as partisan agents. And it mischaracterizes those officials, who seek to defend their place within the system, by presenting them as acting against that system.
Both phrases have become tools that Mr. Trump or his allies use to deflect perceived criticism by attacking the legitimacy of the critic.
The effect is to twist basic functions of democratic governance into partisan disputes. This might serve Mr. Trump in the short term, but in the long run it carries risks.[...]
When, for example, Mr. Trump accused former President Barack Obama of tapping his phones, he forced the F.B.I. into an unappealing choice: Let the accusation slide, though it implies the bureau broke the law, or rebuke the president and risk the appearance of playing politics.
Either way, the bureau loses some of its internal influence, public stature or, quite possibly, both. Losing stature can be especially dangerous, as the bureau needs public trust to effectively operate.[...]
Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency lawyer, and Helen Klein Murillo, a law student, wrote in Lawfare that Mr. Trump’s accusations that career civil servants are partisan agents, along with his administration’s aggressive internal investigations, could be read as “an intention to use the pretense of leak investigations to engage in political retaliation.”
This risks deepening rank-and-file mistrust of Mr. Trump, which Ms. Hennessey and Ms. Murillo believe helped motivate initial leaks.
The cycle of mutual suspicion could well spiral, further breaking down the relationship between the president and the institutions through which he is meant to govern.[...]
Each round, even if it ends in a policy defeat for the White House, galvanizes supporters against the institution blamed for his setback. This is driven by political polarization, in which Americans who see themselves as aligned with a political tribe come to support that group’s positions and oppose its perceived adversaries.
Mr. Trump, for instance, portrayed his immigration ban’s legal defeat as the fault of politicized judges. The attacks did not resurrect his order, but it did tell millions of supporters to distrust the judiciary as politically motivated. His attacks on the news media send similar messages.
This undermines the ability of these institutions to act as checks on the president or other powerful actors, because they can be more readily dismissed as serving narrow partisan agendas.
Polarizing supporters against intelligence agencies — which, in response to leaks, he has called “un-American” and has said echo “Nazi Germany” — makes it easier to reject their policy recommendations, freeing up Mr. Trump to pursue policies at home or abroad that those agencies might oppose.
That is one potential parallel with real deep states, which leaders such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have used as foils to justify consolidating power.
Timur Kuran, a Duke University professor of political science, wrote on Twitter, “Team Erdogan used the ‘deep state’ narrative to destroy political institutions and restructure the bureaucracy. Happening now in USA.”
That polarization can work both ways. Some critics of Mr. Trump have championed the perception that institutions are working to broadly oppose Mr. Trump.
Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, wrote on Twitter: “We are whistle-blowers, press, judges, legislators, cooks, teachers. We are #DeepState. We are the American people.”
When it was suggested that “deep state” could be a risky rallying cry and that institutions could suffer if they were seen as a political opposition, Mr. Lieu wrote in response, “Unless you believe the President is a danger to the Republic, which I do.”
But Dr. Saunders saw the administration as shooting itself in the foot. Treating the bureaucracy as an adversary, she said, had mostly served to mire Mr. Trump in controversies and weaken his ability to put policy into effect.
“You get the feeling that Trump doesn’t understand that working invisibly through the bureaucracy would strengthen him,” she said.