Conservatives worry that bureaucrats and spies are taking it on themselves to thwart the presidency of Donald Trump, but what are they supposed to do?
Imagine you work in the Environmental Protection Agency and your new boss insists that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Are you supposed to accept this lie and adjust policy accordingly because Trump won an Electoral College majority?
Imagine you’re a civil servant in the Justice Department and Trump maintains that the murder rate is at an all-time high and immigrants are pouring into the country. Are you supposed to pretend the opposite isn’t closer to the truth?
Imagine you’re a Foreign Service officer and you see Trump disparage allies like Australia, Germany and Mexico. Are you supposed to embrace this new diplomacy and start writing angry tweets yourself?
Imagine you work in the Pentagon and you hear Trump say NATO is obsolete and doesn’t do enough to fight terrorism. Are you supposed to forget that it’s the bedrock of Atlantic security and that European countries are helping to fight Islamists in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Now imagine you work in one of the intelligence services and you know Trump is lying when he says there is no evidence of Russian interference in last year’s election. Are you supposed to keep your mouth shut and do nothing while the power to start a nuclear war rests with a man who has potentially been compromised by the Russians?
Matthew Continetti seems to think so.
The editor of The Washington Free Beacon not only accuses nameless bureaucrats of working to undermine and ultimately overturn the result of November’s election; he won’t accept there may be principle involved. “It is about wealth, status, the privileges of an exclusive class,” he claims.
Even Eli Lake, who previously defended the Washington “swamp”, finds the way Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was driven out tasteful.
In a column for Bloomberg View, he accuses the “national-security state” of orchestrating Flynn’s downfall and he downplays the former general’s connections with Russia, which were given as the reason for his resignation.
Lake describes Flynn as a “reformer” and a “critic” of the intelligence community, suggesting he was forced out by spies who feared for their jobs.
The reality is that Flynn was fired from the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 because he kept seeing Iran’s hand in incidents around the world, including the 2012 Benghazi attack, without proof to back up his assertions. Other spies didn’t mistrust him because he threatened their plushy jobs; they mistrusted him because he was paranoid.
It’s too bad Continetti and Lake feel the need to impugn the motivates of those who oppose Trump from within — especially when they are willing to give Flynn the benefit of the doubt — but they aren’t wrong to sound the alarm. This is a dilemma for those in government who worry about Trump: How far can they go in resisting a democratically elected president?
Some bureaucratic obstructionism was to be expected. Trump didn’t bring much of a team with him to the White House. Most of the people he did bring had little to no experience in government. Hundreds of executive-branch positions remain unfilled, including nearly all the assistant, deputy and undersecretaryships below the cabinet. That means that, by default, career bureaucrats, who may not agree with Trump’s policies, need to step up.
But there is more going on.
On the one hand, Trump is purging dissidents from the bureaucracy. He fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, last month for refusing to defend his executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim countries — an order that was later overturned by the courts.
The reason the administration gave for firing Yates must have send chills down the spines of many government workers: It said she has “betrayed” the Justice Department.
Now there are reports Trump is thinking of assigning a fellow New York City billionaire to lead a broad review of the intelligence community. The New York Times reports that spies are worried this might curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.
This comes after John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency analyst, and The Wall Street Journal reported that the intelligence agencies have withheld information from the White House, fearful that it might leak to the media or Russia.
This is extremely worrying. The president doesn’t trust his bureaucrats and spies and they don’t trust him — with reason.
Who else is there?
Trump continues to equivocate when he is asked about his team’s ties to Russia.
He calls the media the “enemy of the people”, yet he appears to get his information from cable news and right-wing blogs, as opposed to his own agencies.
He listens to Steve Bannon, the apocalyptic former editor of Breitbart, but can barely be bothered to consume his daily intelligence briefings.
He browbeats foreign leaders during phone calls and without consulting the State Department beforehand, let alone take their advice.
He attacks the courts and fires his acting attorney general when they tell the president he is not above the law.
You don’t have to share my fear that, left unchecked, Trump could become an American Mussolini to agree that his electoral victory didn’t give him a mandate to tarnish institutions that have as much legitimacy as he does; that he is trashing long-standing norms and traditions, uprooting decades of American foreign policy and implementing environmental and law-enforcement policies on the basis of what can only be generously described as alternative facts.
Republicans in Congress aren’t doing much to stop Trump. He has repudiated every tenet of modern Republicanism and yet most of them have rolled over.
If the “deep state” doesn’t fight back, who will?