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L’État, C’est Trump

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 10/2/2020 Franklin Foer
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie © Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty

Although arrogant men have often occupied the Oval Office, the nation has never suffered a presidential ego quite so expansive as Donald Trump’s. In his mind, he is the state, his interests indistinguishable from those of the nation. When Trump looks at the federal bureaucracy, he sees hired help.

Endless examples capture this selfish view of government, but perhaps the clearest is that the Justice Department is now serving as his defense team, in a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll. Never mind that the case traces back to an alleged rape said to have taken place in the ’90s, decades before Trump became president. (Technically at issue is that Trump said in an interview that he could not have raped Carroll because she was “not my type.”) Never mind that every president before Trump has used personal lawyers to represent them in personal matters. Trump has always viewed the attorney general as a better-resourced version of Michael Cohen. That’s why he nursed a long grudge against Jeff Sessions, who felt ethically obliged to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, for failing to vigorously act on his behalf.

[Read: The E. Jean Carroll interviews]

To watch Trump at work is to be painfully reminded of a weakness in the American system. Over the 20th century, Congress created a modern administrative state, filled with civil servants hired in the name of good governance. But their place in the organizational flowchart was a bit confusing, because Congress also empowered the president to give direction to the bureaucracy. Over the years, this confusion yielded a salutary balancing of interests: As the civil servants tried to behave in an apolitical spirit, the president attempted to tether their agenda to the popular will.

Although Trump is hardly the first president to despise technocrats—or to chafe at the idea that his appointees, including his attorney general, have an obligation to remain independent—his abject lack of respect for the spirit of the administrative state has eroded the foundational ethos of the federal government. He has worked to eliminate the healthy tension between the bureaucracy and the president, so that the will of the president unfailingly prevails.

Under this administration, incidents that trigger howls of outrage quickly fade into the overstuffed memory, continually displaced by fresh scandals. But if we bring together the examples of Trump abusing his authority, it becomes apparent that he is transforming the American state. As Trump bends the executive into a servant of his personal interests, the government is coming to resemble its leader.

The Bully’s Pulpit

“I love getting even with people.”

— Donald Trump, The Charlie Rose Show (November 6, 1992)

For a person with such a large appetite for bludgeoning enemies, the government is a wonderland. One example of how the bureaucracy, under Trump, has been turned into an instrument of vengeance: Earlier this year, after New York passed a law permitting undocumented immigrants to receive a driver’s license—and limiting the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to access its motor-vehicle records—the administration banned residents of the state from enrolling in the Global Entry program, which essentially waves travelers through passport control. If New Yorkers wanted to behave like permissive cosmopolitans, then they would be forced to wait in endless lines at JFK.

The ban lasted less than six months; it was revoked after DHS admitted that it had lied in its response to a lawsuit filed by New York. But the episode was emblematic. Inflicting pain on blue America is one of the White House’s most consistent and comprehensive bureaucratic initiatives. Just this past month, the Justice Department designated New York City, Portland, and Seattle “anarchist jurisdictions” so that it could deny these Democratic strongholds certain federal funds. (My colleague Ron Brownstein has compiled a more thorough list of the gratuitous lawsuits, punitive taxes, and other instances of withheld monies that Trump has used to flay the states that didn’t support him.)

[Anne Applebaum: Trump is putting on a show in Portland]

Such schemes are usually undisguised; they contain ostentatious touches that seek to advertise their cleverness. In 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, just 26 hours before his scheduled retirement, preventing him from receiving the bulk of his pension, presumably because he led the bureau’s investigation into Trump’s Russian ties. The pettiness was the point.

Vendettas are a dominant feature of the Trump era. Trump disdains CNN, which he once termed the “Clinton News Network”; perhaps this is why his Justice Department attempted to block the merger of its parent company, Time Warner, with AT&T. His hatred for The Washington Post seems to have fueled a campaign to injure its owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Last summer, Trump allegedly pressured the Defense Department to deny Amazon a $10 billion cloud-computing contract.

This same code of vengeance now undergirds American foreign policy. It was, in fact, the core inquiry of Trump’s impeachment hearings. Did he withhold military aid from Ukraine to force an investigation of Joe Biden’s son? His pattern of petulance certainly suggests that it was. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected Trump’s invitation to attend a G7 meeting in Washington, D.C., this past summer, word leaked that the Pentagon would yank one-third of the American troops stationed in Germany. That is, in an apparent jilted fit, Trump directed the Department of Defense to unilaterally withdraw a hefty portion of the army that had been stationed to deter a Russian invasion of Europe since the end of World War II.

Trump seems to particularly enjoy concocting sadistic schemes to inflict on the institutions of global governance. After the International Criminal Court began looking into allegations that American troops in Afghanistan had raped and tortured civilians, Trump signed an executive order freezing bank accounts belonging to the ICC investigators and banning their traveling to the United States. In the past year, he’s tried to shutter the World Trade Organization and defund the World Health Organization with the same aggrieved fury.

The political scientist Daniel Drezner has described Trump as the “toddler in chief,” which cleverly captures the president’s tendency to throw tantrums, yet obscures the fact that the American people have something to fear from their leader’s immaturity. As a candidate,Trump encouraged the chant “Lock her up!” As the denizen of the Oval Office, he has threatened to prosecute his political enemies, including Adam Schiff, Barack Obama, and John Bolton. Thanks to Attorney General William Barr, a prosecutor is now charged with investigating a cabal that supposedly invented the Trump-Russian scandal. In a second term, Trump will further erode the institutional obstacles to fully realizing his fantasies of vengeance, and slogans once used to rile crowds will come to have the force of law.

Sycophantocracy

“We want bad people out of our government!”

— Donald Trump, Twitter (February 13, 2020)

In March of 2018, the Secret Service abruptly escorted John McEntee from the White House, without a chance for him to grab his jacket or belongings. McEntee had lobbied hard to serve as the presidential body man, following Trump with a cache of Sharpies and hauling papers for him to sign. But McEntee had substantial gambling debts and tax irregularities that precluded him from obtaining the security clearance required for his job, and forced his removal from the building.

Trump didn’t treat McEntee as an embarrassment, as other presidents would have, much less a pariah. Less than two years later, Trump brought McEntee back and with a hefty promotion. He placed the 29-year-old at the helm of the Presidential Personnel Office and instructed him to identify disloyal bureaucrats for their removal.

Everything in Trump’s character bristles at the idea of an independent civil service. He can’t abide the thought of leading an organization where the employees aren’t obsequious courtiers—a craving for toadies that can be seen in Trump’s unusually long list of ex–chiefs of staff, former national security advisers, cashiered secretaries of state and defense, who were apparently deemed insufficiently deferential.

Trump has waged war on the independence of the civil service by firing its guardians. This winter, he purged the ranks of the inspectors general. He removed five of them. These are ombudsmen installed in each Cabinet department, as mandated by Congress, who exist to protect whistleblowers and to ask nettlesome questions about abuses of power, such as: Why was the administration selling arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over congressional objections? Or was the administration coercing the Ukranian government into an investigation of Trump’s political rival?

[Franklin Foer: Now we know what kind of authoritarian Trump aspires to be]

A civil service is supposed to abide by rules of ethical conduct. Trump has chafed under these constraints and attempted to circumvent them altogether. Rather than work through the State Department, he empowered his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to conduct a shadow foreign policy. In a capacity that blurred public service with private intention, Giuliani galavanted across the world and met with foreign leaders, sometimes on the president’s behalf, sometimes to promote the cause of his legal clients.

When civil servants have objected to such instances of corrupt behavior, they have often been dismissed. Indeed, after the Republican-controlled Senate, predictably, exonerated the president for his role in the Ukraine scheme, Trump began purging the officials who dared testify against him—or who were perceived to have abetted the investigations. His underlings forced out Alexander Vindman, Yevgeny Vindman, Gordon Sondland, John Rood, Elaine McCusker, and Michael Atkinson.

Trump has attempted to instill an ethos of subservience, where job security requires turning a blind eye to malfeasance. In this system, the bureaucracy, designed to be buffered from politics, is completely exposed to its winds.

The State of Delusion

“It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”

— Donald Trump on the coronavirus (February 28, 2020)

Trump has often displayed a capacity to passionately describe a world that has no correspondence to reality. Psycho-biographers of Trump will endlessly debate whether he truly believes the fantastical tales he spins. Did he really convince himself that he saw thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers? Either way, the power of the presidency has provided him with an apparatus that forces the entire nation to inhabit his fabulistic creations.

Among the roles of the state is the manufacture of facts. As the nation industrialized and grew in the 20th century, the American government recruited an army of scientists, economists, intelligence analysts, agronomists, and technical specialists. The nature of modern life was complexity. Effectively governing that complexity necessitated reliable information. Elected officials, who could never have the time or training to master intricacies, leaned on the work of experts. Government technocrats produced statistics that guided markets; they produced reports that identified human-rights abuses around the world; they evaluated the dangers of new medicines; they counted the American population and described its demographic composition.

[Deborah Pearlstein: How the government lost its mind]

Trump despises these experts, and he has relentlessly prodded them to conform to his delusions. The reductio ad absurdum of this phenomenon was his reaction to Hurricane Dorian. On September 1, 2019, Trump announced that the hurricane was propelling toward four states, including Alabama. As it turned out, the president was relying on obsolete information—the forecast had shifted, and Alabama was not in the storm’s path. But on Twitter, Trump resolutely refused to admit his error. He eventually sat in the Oval Office and brandished a map of the storm’s path, which included a ham-fisted hand-drawn alteration, purporting to illustrate the validity of his own meteorological wisdom.

Unable to admit the president’s fallibility, the Trump administration pressured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to back his lies. The government’s in-house meteorologists were forced to defy their own science and issue a press release affirming Trump. As officials later told investigators, they felt the security of their jobs demanded that they fudge on the president’s behalf.

The story was a prelude to the pandemic. Although the Trump administration didn’t have a plan for the disease, it was well practiced in techniques for misinforming the public about it. Throughout the rolling public-health disaster, the White House has pressured agencies to issue pronouncements that conform to the president’s wishes. Thanks to reporting by The New York Times, we now have a window into the administration’s manipulation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In late August, the agency issued guidance for coronavirus testing. It suggested that those without symptoms didn’t necessarily need testing—a blatant contradiction of the public-health consensus. But according to the Times, the CDC hadn’t subjected this recommendation to its usual scientific review. Trump appointees rewrote the CDC’s language. It seems they wanted to lower the number of tests, and thereby minimize a perception that the virus was still rampant. A trusted font of medical opinion was forced to utter instructions to the public that hewed to the wishes of the president, untethered from evidence. His government transmitted a strain of denialism that left the nation susceptible. It left the president susceptible, too: On Friday, after a week full of unmasked public appearances, and hours after he said the end of the pandemic “is in sight,” he revealed he had contracted COVID-19.

When the president considers a fact or a narrative detrimental to his image, he pressures his government to suppress it. Even as his aides seem to incessantly leak, the administration is adept at opacity. It ceased publishing the White House visitor logs; it has markedly increased the denials of Freedom of Information Act requests. The Justice Department has tried to stifle the publication of unflattering memoirs by Michael Cohen, John Bolton, and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, an aide to Melania Trump.

Trump at times won’t allow his government to publicly admit empirically observable facts, including the growing threat of white supremacy. The president has a strong interest in denying this reality, because he would prefer not to have the ardent white supremacists who support his administration reclassified as a domestic terrorism threat. For his political purposes, he would prefer to blame the far left for violent conflagrations in places like Portland. And the bureaucracy has more or less fallen in line: The White House has stifled the experts tasked with reporting on domestic terrorism; a whistleblower at DHS has alleged that Trump appointees forced the agency to present white supremacists as a “less severe” threat than antifa.

[Read: The rise of the violent left]

At moments, the U.S. government has come to resemble Fox News. What was once the most rigorous, unassailable source of information in the world—information so accurate that it became the basis for pediatricians’ practices and the planning of businesses and the planting of crops—is now rife with lies and calculated omissions. It is wielded to deceive the public. The delusions of the president seep into society, with the imprimatur of the state.

The Department of Shakedowns

“Take their money. Take their money.”

— Donald Trump on Saudi Arabia (June 23, 2019)

This summer, Trump threatened that the Commerce Department would ban TikTok, the Chinese social-networking service, in order to force its sale to an American company. He claimed to be acting in the name of national security, but that felt like a hollow pretext for a shakedown. Thanks to his highly unorthodox meddling in the market, a valuable piece of property will likely be steered into the hands of his stalwart donors at Oracle. (The company’s CEO served on Trump’s transition team.) As he greased the transaction, he demanded a cut of the deal be paid to the U.S. Treasury, as a sort of commission.

Of course, Trump would describe the situation differently. The sale of TikTok is a deal, and he styles himself as the world’s greatest dealmaker. This image is foundational to his self-mythology. When he ran for president, he promised that this acumen would be applied to American foreign policy. He would restore America’s place in the world, by wheedling better terms for it.

Trump’s strategic doctrine is unabashed transactionalism. All that matters is getting better terms, which is perhaps the best way to read his presidency: a continuous quest to obtain a more favorable arrangement for himself. His underlings can see this as clearly as his critics, and they know his thirst for profit is a reliable method for ingratiation. It’s why Vice President Mike Pence booked himself into a remote Trump-owned golf resort in Ireland, even though it required traveling an additional 180 miles for his meetings and cost the government an additional $600,000 to cover his extended commute. It’s why Barr spent $30,000 to throw the Justice Department Christmas party at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, a building that has come to serve as the administration’s unofficial co-working space.

The Trumpist State Unleashed

“There won’t be a transfer, frankly; there’ll be a continuation.”

— Donald Trump on whether he’ll commit to a peaceful transfer of power (September 23, 2020)

Trump’s bid for reelection provides a sense of how a second term might unfold. For the sake of his political survival, his government is finding ever new ways to advance the president’s interests. As Trump began to sprout untruths about the dangers of absentee voting, his postmaster general abruptly slowed the delivery of mail; perhaps this was just a coincidence, but the effect was to further undermine faith in the mail-in ballot. To reinforce Trump’s narrative about antifa run amuck, the Homeland Security and Justice Departments created a joint operations center to investigate “left-wing civil unrest.” His intelligence services have suppressed information about the attempts of a foreign government to manipulate the election on his behalf. And according to Politico, the Department of Health and Human Services intends to sign a $250 million contract with a communications firm to laud the president’s handling of the pandemic.

[Read: America is trapped in a pandemic spiral]

American law pretty clearly insists that presidents make an effort to delineate their role as a public servant from their role as a candidate. That’s why a campaign must pay for flights on Air Force One that deliver the president to a campaign rally; it’s the reason that politicians are forbidden from raising money on government property. But Trump has rolled over those laws and norms. At his nominating convention, he thoroughly exploited his powers to produce a political infomercial. In order to inject an image of beneficence into prime time, he pardoned inmates and inducted citizens; a video produced by the Interior Department touted his love for the environment; he festooned the White House with campaign logos, and gave the defining speech of his campaign from the building’s portico. He lined the crowd with uniformed members of the National Border Patrol Council, who cheered their leader.

This was Trump playing the role of showman, but also setting precedent. His confusion of self and state will only grow as he continues to occupy the office. With four more years, the bureaucracy will lose memory of a time before Trump. A generation of civil servants and prosecutors will decide that they can’t sacrifice another long stretch of their careers. Thanks to the actuarial realities, opportunities to further stock the courts with ideological sympathizers will arise. The government will begin to indelibly carry his imprint. It will become a state so thoroughly imbued with his character that it will struggle to ever revert to normal.

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