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How Will National Security Institutions Survive Their War With Trump?

Institutional safeguards have already checked a dangerous president—but risk eroding the institutions themselves.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s first two months in office have been dominated by a bitter war with the executive branch he oversees. Facing a Trumpian barrage of destructive policies, a White House with an inexplicable affinity with Moscow, and withering rhetorical contempt, national security professionals have defended their principles and their turf with leaks, most spectacularly claiming the scalp of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after just 24 days on the job. However, for those concerned about the machinery of American governance, this ongoing war presents a dilemma. Even a justified pushback against Trump’s overreach risks collateral damage to institutions whose durability and credibility depend on their independence from the partisan fray. 

Flynn, who was fired after leaks revealed that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition, is not an isolated example. At the beginning of March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian meddling in the election, after it emerged that he had misled Congress about his communications with Russian officials in 2016. While we don’t know who alerted the press to those communications, an enraged Trump reportedly took it as the latest evidence that the bureaucracy was determined to sabotage him.

This suspicion was likely only exacerbated over the weekend, when newspapers reported, citing unidentified American officials, that FBI Director James Comey had asked the Justice Department to refute Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped his phones.

Trump’s erratic behavior and lashing-out have forced the historically apolitical patriots of the U.S. national security workforce to make agonizing choices over how they might honorably react to a presidency’s assault on American values and institutions. Under what circumstances do the ends justify the means—be it resigning in protest, refusing a presidential order, or, in the case of Michael Flynn, publicly leaking information that included sensitive reporting on intelligence intercepts? And how will President Trump’s successors repair the tools of American statecraft?

There’s nothing new about bureaucratic intransigence or leaks, which have always been part of Washington’s information ecosystem. Leaks are channels through which officials and institutions exercise power and keep the American people broadly informed. Every administration struggles with message discipline as institutional tugs-of-war spill into the public sphere. 

Meanwhile, leakers’ tools have only grown more powerful in the digital age. When encrypted data can be shared by the terabyte, mass dissemination of highly desirable information becomes almost inevitable. While Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have released such information indiscriminately on a massive scale, the anti-Trump leaks have been targeted and controlled. Still, there is little ability to hold the culprits accountable—as the tragicomic instant leaking of leak-plugging memos makes clear. Effective senior public servants understand this and act accordingly, seeking to shape the public narrative and build bridges with Congress and the media. 

But there is nothing normal about what is happening right now. President Trump, unburdened by government experience, started this fight.  He has concentrated power among White House loyalists and declared war on his own executive branch, applying some of the scorched-earth tactics he honed against political rivals to public servants. His top strategist, Steve Bannon, muses of “deconstructing the administrative state.” Worse still, Trump has made clear that, in the event of a terrorist attack, he will blame the judiciary and media, just as he blamed his generals when a soldier was killed in an ill-fated raid that he greenlit as commander-in-chief.

Trump’s bullying puts the bureaucracy in a terrible bind. Pushing back requires that they enter the fray, which creates a new vulnerability: being cast by Trump as politicized participants in a shoving match. For example, Trump imposes an indefensible visa ban without professional input, more than a thousand apolitical State Department officials file a formal dissent memo in response (which promptly leaks), and then Trump’s team treats them as politicized hacks unwelcome in his administration. In another example, Trump trashes the intelligence community, further leaks emerge, and he then likens these to “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.” The anonymous nature of bureaucratic resistance feeds into Trump’s narrative of an unaccountable elite opposed to his populist revolution. 

Trump’s politicization not just of foreign policy outcomes, but of the actual bureaucratic machinery of governance, erodes public faith in institutions by casting them in a partisan light. And inside government, the damage is even more dangerous, narrowing the circle of trust as the most inexperienced White House in memory looks askance at the bureaucrats who might help them avoid amateur mistakes. When crisis strikes, as it inevitably will, this politicization increases the real risk that the new team will be caught flat-footed. 

The notion of a unitary “deep state” is a fiction. But when public institutions feel assaulted and disrespected, their membership will fight back, with a mix of patriotism and pique. Mostly, the information coming out is in the category of process leaks, designed to pressure course corrections. If these leaks are unflattering, such as those that revealed the president’s conduct in phone calls with foreign leaders, it’s largely because the president failed to demonstrate a basic competence, while ignoring the input of his experts. 

The leaking of details about Flynn’s calls to Kislyak raises more serious questions. While Kislyak will presumably not be surprised to learn that he is being monitored, the widespread dissemination of this type of highly restricted information could jeopardize ongoing collection efforts. One cost of resisting Trump’s worst excesses could be to make already creaky foreign policy machinery even less workable over the long run. Will this heightened bureaucratic resistance depart when Trump does, or will it take evolving forms and seep into our governing DNA as a new normal?  What is near certain is that the next president will have a massive bureaucratic reconstruction job after Hurricane Trump passes.  

So what is to be done? 

The main responsibility to repair the breach lies with the president. Ultimately, within reason and consistent with our laws and values, democratically elected leaders should be able to draw on the support of the federal bureaucracy to govern. But a White House that is serious about governing effectively would treat its experts with a modicum of respect; address the glaring, self-inflicted leadership vacuum in senior national security positions; and consult with the rest of government in policy deliberations. Too much to ask? How about ceasing from gratuitously insulting them.

Second, Trump’s cabinet secretaries have an obligation to stand up for American institutions and values—especially when the president won’t. Whether this is their first tour in government or the culmination of a decades-long career, they will know firsthand the remarkable service of those who work for them and should rise to the challenge of protecting their honor, recognizing their value, and channeling their input into decision-making even when the White House is disinterested or worse. Where bureaucracies are withering from neglect, as is reportedly happening at the State Department, the first step is simply to nominate a leadership team beneath Secretary Rex Tillerson and get them confirmed. It is baffling that this hasn’t happened yet and enraging that Trump now spins his dangerous neglect as thrift. 

Senior officials serving in the Trump administration—including many who served the nation in uniform—know well that their oath is not to a man, but to the constitution. The extraordinary sacrificial example of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who was fired for publicly stating she would not enforce Trump’s travel ban, is unlikely to be repeated. But it is encouraging that several members of Trump’s team are publicly standing up for enduring American values. H.R. McMaster, Flynn’s replacement, told his National Security Council staff in his first “all hands” meeting that the term “radical Islamic terrorism” was unhelpful. Similarly, Defense Secretary James Mattis has publicly spoken his conscience on issues ranging from demonizing the media to stealing Iraq’s oil. Because cabinet secretaries lack the physical proximity of Bannon and Stephen Miller to the Oval Office, important members of Congress concerned about the Trump administration should seek ways to ensure their standing against undue political interference.

Third, Democrats and Republicans alike on Capitol Hill should recognize that this is their moment to reassert the role of the legislative branch and to correct the imbalance that has emerged between the legislative and executive branches through years of hyper-partisanship and legislative gridlock. Offering executive branch whistleblowers and internal dissenters credible channels for oversight and accountability that do not run through the front pages of the newspapers could help to constrain Trump’s overreach and create healthy precedents going forward.

Both of us have served in government. We know firsthand the frustrations of confronting bureaucratic intransigence in advancing what we considered the legitimate policy goals of an elected president. What might surprise many outside this process is how much it rests not on hard-and-fast rules but on informal institutional norms. A common understanding—or at least a degree of mutual respect—between political appointees and the apolitical officials who support them is a necessary part of a functioning national security policy. The Trump administration’s refusal to act within the traditional bounds of American political behavior is likely to place unprecedented pressure on these norms. Once broken, they will be difficult to re-establish, particularly in an era when so many other institutions have failed to keep up with the social, political and technological upheaval around them. Whoever replaces Trump, whether in one year, four years, or eight, will have to contend with the damage done in the meantime.