The specter of deep state conspiracies against President Trump has long been a key rhetorical and political weapon in the arsenal of the Trump White House.
Trump and his loyal enablers have deployed the image of deep state foes in national security, public health, law enforcement, and other government agencies—and as their targets multiply, the sub-rosa conspiracy uniting them keeps expanding and morphing. Charges of deep state opposition to Trump have supplied an all-purpose rationale to attack intelligence that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to help him win and is doing so again, and more recently to tar and sow doubts about health advisers and public health measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.
The deep state offers a convenient cover and alibi for all manner of executive branch power grabs and abuses founded on alternative facts and paranoid pretexts. In September, for example, the president tweeted unfounded allegations of deep state opposition at the Food and Drug Administration in order to raise the suspicion that entrenched political forces at the agency were blocking the speedy testing and approval of a Covid-19 vaccine “to delay the answer until after Nov. 3.” That same month, Health and Human Services communications flak Michael Caputo mounted a parallel attack in a now-infamous Facebook tantrum charging that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention harbored “deep state” elements bent on “sedition.” (Caputo’s outburst led to him taking a medical leave from his post, though he’s continued to air similar charges on right-wing news outlets.)
But amid all the bluster and invective directed at the vague and shape-shifting image of a deep state anti-Trump conspiracy nestled within federal bureaucracies, something very close to the opposite dynamic has taken hold: True-believing Trump administration loyalists have erected a deep state complex to shield and advance Trump’s agendas in the sanctums of Washington power and to boost his campaign prospects in 2020.
One unifying thread of the Trumpian theory of the deep state is an abiding disregard for expertise and evidence. This campaign against specialized knowledge has served various ends—from purging top Cabinet officials who don’t follow Trump’s dictums to quashing information Trump finds politically damaging, according to former senior intelligence hands and other officials.
Armed with this blunt article of faith, Trump has broadly expanded his own power, while consolidating his administration’s control of officially sanctioned disinformation. The result has downgraded the flow of information within the administration into a glorified sort of agitprop, former senior officials say—and this brings the Trump White House into clear alignment with elements of authoritarian regimes, where real deep states control information and bend laws.
“Trump came to office as the most ignorant and ahistorical president of all time,” John Sipher, who spent 28 years in the CIA’s National Clandestine Services, with a stint heading its Russia operations, told me. “Trump probably believed that the federal bureaucracy was the president’s personal tool to maintain political power.”
“He came into power thinking these institutions were his and would do his bidding,” Sipher added. “He’s trying to make these institutions beholden to him. He’s trying to create his own deep state, and is trying to make people complicit in his dirty deeds—like a Mafia boss.”
Still, Sipher goes on to note that this mobbed-up vision of top-down message discipline also shares clear affinities with prominent anti-democratic regimes. “Trump wants to have a government that’s his personal weapon. That’s what Putin has and Erdogan has, too. I think Trump has a feral instinct for power.”
That instinct also animates a trio of top Cabinet-level officials in the legal, national security, and intelligence worlds who’ve echoed Trump’s deep state rhetoric while aiding the cause of transforming the federal government into his personal fiefdom. Attorney General William Barr, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe have all helped amplify Trump’s campaign to discredit intelligence about Russian meddling in 2016 to help him win, and the Kremlin’s backing of the president’s reelection effort, sparking congressional criticism and sowing public confusion.
What’s more, critics charge, Barr, Wolf, and Ratcliffe have largely been selected on the basis of their willingness to erect a Trump-branded deep state that limits information that could harm Trump and pushes Trump-friendly narratives at the highest levels of government. Trump tapped all three since early 2019 to replace Cabinet-level officials who’d delivered politically unpalatable counsel to the president on threats ranging from Russia to China to domestic terrorism.
The collective track record that Barr, Wolf, and Ratcliffe have compiled on these fronts looks much like the functioning of an actual deep state in authoritarian countries such as Russia and Turkey, say ex-intelligence officials. In early September, for example, a top DHS intelligence official filed a whistleblower complaint with the agency’s inspector general, alleging Wolf had told him to stop reporting that Russia was interfering again to boost Trump, lest it displease the president and make him “look bad.”
Also in September, Barr appeared to be following the same administration-wide mandate to dismiss the Russia threat. Asked in a CNN interview to identify the chief foreign bad actor in the 2020 election cycle, Barr asserted without any persuasive evidence, “I believe it’s China,” adding only that he had “seen the intelligence.”
Barr’s claim puzzled and outraged many observers. After all, America’s top counterintelligence official, William Evanina, had told Congress in early August that Russia is using “a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” and is the most active foreign force in the pending election. Evanina said that China’s opposition to Trump has been mostly rhetorical and based on its concerns he is “unpredictable.” Representative Adam Schiff, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, bluntly pronounced that Barr was “lying.”
Ratcliffe sparked a bipartisan firestorm on Capitol Hill in late August when he flatly announced he would no longer brief key congressional committees in person before the election about foreign threats. This was a dramatic break with precedent that, like the parallel efforts of Wolf and Barr, followed a clear pattern of these senior officials in sensitive posts tamping down the flow of information so as to enhance Trump’s political prospects.
Ratcliffe ultimately stood down from his “don’t ask, don’t tell” posture on Russian interference after the “Gang of Eight”—the elite group of congressional leaders who are briefed on classified intelligence—pressed him to reverse course. But he continues to spout the Trumpian deep state party line on the issue whenever he has the chance: He told Fox News in August that “China poses a greater national security threat to the U.S than any other nation, [including] threats of election influence and intervention.” And at the end of September, Ratcliffe took the dramatic step of issuing a letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham that contained unvetted claims, originating with Russian disinformation sources, that Hillary Clinton had approved a plan to link Trump to the Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee computers as a 2016 campaign ploy. Graham, a strong Trump loyalist leading a review of how the FBI probed Russia’s 2016 meddling, quickly made Ratcliffe’s missive public.
The trio’s striking devotion to downplaying the Russia threat supplies a snapshot of the M.O. of the Trumpian deep state in action. An array of former officials and critics note that the rise of Barr, Wolf, and Ratcliffe has capped a concerted effort on Trump’s part to hide or distort critical information that might harm him politically on a wide range of foreign and domestic issues that could hurt his campaign.
“Trump is undertaking purges of people who disagree with him, and has put in place a Cabinet, a sub-Cabinet, and a White House staff that will largely agree with him, regardless of what is right or legal, if the president wants to do something,” says Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff under two Trump-era heads of DHS. “He’s hollowed out the senior ranks at DHS with the goal of ensuring that DHS will implement the more ill-advised aspects of his agenda uninhibited.”
“The president, if he’s been successful at anything, has been successful at creating a government that tells him what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear,” Taylor explains. “It shows the unprecedented ways that Trump’s personnel decisions have translated into the policies he wants, but which may be inappropriate, unethical, or even un-American.”
Former intelligence leaders say that Trump has a knack for creating sycophantic followers—a skill shared among strong authoritarian leaders throughout the world.
“Trump has created sycophants who feed his ego,” says Doug Wise, a former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a CIA veteran. “He manages and manipulates them with toxic leadership. The whole deep state is the creation of Trump for the manipulation and unification of his supporters.”
“Trump is the classic toxic leader. This is a leader unwilling to listen, who engages in excessive self-promotion and self-interest, is inconsistent in messages and lies, lacks moral and ethical core values, rewards the loyal and the incompetent, eschews accountability, surrounds himself with sycophants, and bullies both supporters and enemies.”
“Trump unifies people through fear and intimidation, and by creating real or imaginary external enemies,” Wise added. “He has created such an ideological and emotional external enemy in the deep state.” It’s not dissimilar to the “deep-state-like” demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy, Wise suggests—a fitting analog in many ways, since Trump himself came into public life under the personal tutelage of McCarthy’s former right-hand man in Washington, lawyer Roy Cohn, whom Trump enlisted as a business consigliere early in his career.
Ex-officials stress that Trump, like other authoritarian figures, has displayed a penchant for ousting officials who don’t adhere to his political whims and dictates. “Trump is fundamentally about self-interest,” Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior DHS official and ex-prosecutor for the Department of Justice, says. “He has, slowly but surely, bent the government to his service.”
Rosenzweig notes that Trump’s initial set of premier Cabinet officials, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and DNI head Dan Coats, “were strong actors who resisted his greatest excesses.” Once Trump sent them packing, he made a point of recruiting die-hard loyalists in their stead. Their replacements, Rosenzweig says, are “all sycophants who would never dare to cross him.”
The costs of speaking out on issues that Trump deems politically offensive can be high, as FBI Director Chris Wray has lately learned.
Less than 24 hours after Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee in mid-September that Russia was mounting “very active efforts” in 2020 to “denigrate” Biden, Trump blasted Wray in a vitriolic tweetstorm. Again without citing any evidence, Trump pronounced China a “FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia.”
A day later, Trump even darkly hinted he was mulling replacing Wray, telling reporters, “We’re looking at a lot of different things.”
“I did not like his answers yesterday,” Trump continued. “I’m not sure he liked them either. I’m sure that he probably would agree with me.”
Trump has also exploited the bogeyman of deep state opposition to stave off congressional and independent oversight and politicize more and more high-level posts.
Just this year, Trump and top administration allies moved aggressively to oust several inspectors general as they were conducting inquiries into alleged abuses by senior officials at State, Defense, and Intelligence. In response, House Democrats have proposed legislation to insulate and protect government watchdogs from political retaliation.
Nor does the administration’s multifront political offensive stop at the water’s edge: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has likewise weaponized his agency’s mission to mimic the deep state operating style sanctioned by the White House.
“Pompeo has politicized the department more than any secretary I can recall, including through his remarks to the RNC from Jerusalem, a trip paid for by American taxpayers,” David Kramer, a senior State official in the George W. Bush administration, says. “Pompeo’s efforts to ingratiate himself to the president paid off when he convinced Trump to fire the State inspector general—who was investigating the secretary on several different matters, including his misuse of department resources.”
Wise, the ex–Defense Intelligence Agency number two, noted that all the dismissed inspector generals got the same stigmatizing treatment on their way out the door; they “were deep state operatives to Trump.”
Even in an administration that thrives on pushing deep state conspiracies with minimal regard for facts and evidence, William Barr stands out. In a fairly short span of 19 months in office, Barr has established himself as Trump’s boldest sycophant, deploying his broad powers as attorney general to help Trump’s campaign agenda, in brazen violation of Justice Department norms and policies, several former department officials say.
In a spate of media interviews, Barr has duly amplified Trump’s unsupported, almost daily rants predicting rampant voter fraud due to the large expansion of mail-in voting in next month’s presidential balloting. Barr has falsely claimed that “there’s no more secret vote with mail-in vote,” and charged in Fox News interviews that Democratic efforts to expand mail-in ballots were “reckless” and “grossly irresponsible,” while the Trump campaign keeps mounting legal challenges to expanded mail-in voting due to the pandemic.
Channeling Trump further, Barr has hyped the president’s conspiratorial campaign narrative about threats to law and order by Black Lives Matter—some of whom he branded “Bolsheviks” with a “lust for power” in an August Fox News interview—and largely peaceful protests over the police killing of George Floyd, while raising the specter of alleged coordinated terrorist activity sponsored by networks of antifa protesters. At the same time, Barr has downplayed violence from right-wing militias. Barr has also launched a high- profile—and Trump-endorsed—investigation of the early federal inquiries into Russian interference in 2016. In further defiance of agency norms, the attorney general has publicly detailed and improperly discussed parts of this investigation of the investigators, say former Justice Department hands.
As the election nears, critics also say that Barr has been much more aggressive in using department resources and discretionary enforcement powers to advance the president’s 2020 campaign prospects. In late September, for example, Barr helpfully alerted Trump first to a fledgling probe in Pennsylvania that nine ballots—seven of which were reportedly filled out for Trump—were improperly discarded. Trump promptly disclosed this tip during a Fox News interview, to spin his narrative on how early mail-in voting was already succumbing to rampant fraud orchestrated by the Democratic opposition. Meanwhile, Justice and State officials later issued a few press releases, with no mention of fraud, to clarify that the ballots were discarded in a trash can by a temporary contractor who was dismissed—which prompted the inquiry.
Barr’s unseemly leaking of a pending state inquiry coupled with the Justice Department’s announcement “violated DOJ’s own policy manual on investigating cases,” says Gerry Hebert, a former Justice official who spent 21 years at the department in the voting rights section. “Barr’s briefing of the president on that investigation before it was even made public so Trump could announce it on Fox News is further evidence of Barr abusing the power of his office and trying to undermine confidence in our elections. Barr and Trump are joined at the hip and are engaging in a pattern and practice of vote suppression activities.”
Barr, Hebert adds, has “engaged in repeated efforts to cast doubt about the validity of elections by making false statements,” such as claiming that 1,700 fraudulent ballots in Texas were cast by mail—a fabrication that the Justice Department later had to walk back.
Former department officials further stress that Barr’s legal worldview, which is steeped in the alleged preeminence of “the unitary executive” in the American political system, fits together very closely with Trump’s own strongman impulses. “Barr is working across the board to defeat the checks and balances that limit executive power, with the objective of making the president a virtual autocrat with powers to do pretty much anything he wants to,” says Donald Ayer, a 10-year department veteran and a deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration who has known Barr for almost four decades. Ayer notes that, especially during this election year, “Barr has been using the full powers of his office to promote Trump’s campaign themes and get him reelected”—again in defiance of long-standing post-Watergate norms at the department, which have sought to divorce its operations from bald political agendas.
Barr’s tenure as attorney general was still in its infancy when he held an unusual press conference to promote a misleading four-page summary of the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign. Barr’s bowdlerized account of the Mueller report—prior to its release—helped distort early press coverage of the ex-FBI director’s nearly 450-page report, which concluded that Russia interfered to help Trump in “sweeping and systematic” fashion; thus Barr effectively muddied the debate around the 2016 Trump campaign’s close ties to Russia so as to serve the narrative peddled by Trump himself—that “deep state” enemies at the FBI and other intelligence agencies were conniving to undermine his campaign and presidency.
The same general pattern holds in Barr’s own high-profile investigation into the investigators at the FBI and CIA who, in 2016, launched a probe into Russia’s possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Last May, Barr tapped John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to lead the inquiry: While Barr has been actively involved in the probe and oversees it, he also has publicly derided Mueller’s probe as “one of the greatest travesties in American history.”
The Durham inquiry is still ongoing, but Justice Department veterans note that Barr has improperly dropped several strong hints in media interviews that it will produce significant charges—beyond a felony plea last month by a mid-level FBI lawyer that he altered a document to grant wiretapping authority.
Nora Dannehy, a senior Justice prosecutor and top aide on Durham’s team, resigned in September, an abrupt exit reportedly fueled by concerns that the team was facing improper political pressure from Barr, perhaps to get out an interim report before the election. Her departure was just the latest indication that the whole probe may be scheduled to deliver an “October surprise” for Trump to exploit over the final stretch of the campaign. Barr himself has publicly hinted as much: “There are going to be developments, significant developments, before the election,” he promised the public in August.
In the wake of Dannehy’s resignation, eight top Senate Democrats called for an inspector general investigation into whether the Barr-Durham probe was being politically driven to help the Trump campaign. Four House Democrats—including Intelligence panel chairman Representative Adam Schiff—sent a similar letter on September 18 to the Justice Department’s inspector general urging an “emergency” inquiry.
Barr has been keeping the inspector general busy. Two other investigations were already focusing on his eager guardianship of Trump’s political interests at the time of Dannehy’s resignation. One is looking at whether Barr was doing the president’s bidding when he moved to lower sentencing recommendations by career Justice Department prosecutors for Trump confidant and self-styled “dirty trickster” Roger Stone after Stone had been convicted on seven counts, including lying to Congress and witness tampering. Stone was later sentenced to 40 months in prison—which fell within the three to four years Barr endorsed—but days before he was due to report to jail, Trump commuted the sentence.
The inspector general also announced, in July, a probe into the use of force by federal law enforcement—which Barr was overseeing—to remove mostly peaceful protesters around Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, right before Trump exited the White House and walked to a nearby church for his botched photo op holding a Bible upside down.
Justice Department veterans lament that the damage of Barr’s conspiracy-fueled reign stretches well beyond the nation’s head law enforcement arm. In the eyes of ex–Deputy Attorney General Ayer, “Barr has been actively engaged in misleading the public in ways worthy of Joseph Goebbels’s Big Lie technique, by repeatedly accusing the Democrats of being the ones tearing down our system and shredding norms and claiming for himself the mantle of the rule of law and allegiance, above all else, to evenhanded administration of justice.”
The latest front to open up in the Trump White House’s rhetorical war on the deep state, of course, concerns the raging Covid-19 pandemic, as the Trump campaign has frantically sought to hype the White House’s woeful track record on containing the virus’s spread.
Trump has continually assailed the performance of senior health officials in order to counter the glaring evidence that he has badly bungled the national response to the Covid crisis.
“Everybody understands the life-saving value of masks,” Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard’s public health school, told me. “But Trump’s message has been consistently inconsistent.”
“There is no sense of deference in the administration to what is scientific fact and evidence-based policies,” Koh stressed. “The president has repeatedly criticized the CDC and the FDA. We’re in the worst public health crisis in our country in a century. At a time like this, you need to turn to the top health experts.”
Instead, Trump has mounted a series of attacks on the CDC and its director, Robert Redfield, particularly after Redfield testified to Congress about the severely flawed federal response to Covid-19.
On September 16, Redfield told a Senate panel that wearing a mask could be more effective in slowing the spread of Covid-19 than a vaccine when it ultimately arrives. He noted, as well, that a vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until the end of the second or the third quarter next year.
None of this sat well with the president, who promptly set out to undermine the counsel of a premier health official. Just hours after Redfield’s testimony, Trump staged a White House press briefing where he claimed, with no evidence, that the CDC director “had made a mistake” and that the “mask is not as important as the vaccine.”
In lieu of consistently and fully endorsing the CDC’s directives on mask wearing, social distancing, and other recommendations, Trump opted in August to recruit a new senior Covid adviser, Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who lacks public health or infectious disease experience. Atlas touts mask-free responses to the pandemic such as the “herd immunity” approach variously adopted in Sweden and the U.K., to minimal practical effect, and at great enhanced risk of mass Covid transmission.
In keeping with those of the other custodians of the Trumpian deep state, Atlas’s chief credentials are ideological: He’s a fellow at Stanford University’s right-wing Hoover Institute and a frequent Fox News commentator. Atlas’s views have especially irked Redfield, who was overheard on a flight telling someone that “everything he says is false,” as NBC News first disclosed and Redfield confirmed.
Even before Atlas arrived, the White House began fighting hard to downplay and alter CDC guidance on the risks of reopening schools this fall, according to Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence.
Public health experts are increasingly shocked by Trump’s politicized policies about Covid-19, which they say endanger the fight against the pandemic.
“If this is a war, we have a commander in chief who has been serving with partisans from the other side—the side that enhances the effectiveness of the virus,” says Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, who ran the CDC from 1998 to 2002 and now leads a global health program at Emory University. The politicized nonresponse to the Covid crisis means that Trump and his chosen inner circle refuse to “reinforce the scientists”—and that, Koplan notes, “is clearly something that gives the virus an additional opportunity.”
The risks of Trump’s unfounded claims were underscored by a September poll showing that two-thirds of Americans say they won’t take a vaccine as soon as it’s available. Those numbers bear out Redfield’s testimony before Congress debunking Trump’s upbeat vaccine prognostications. “Unless we reverse that level of (public) distrust, the pandemic will go on indefinitely,” Koh predicted.
With the election looming, Trump and his tight coterie of loyalists are closing ranks to tar critics inside and outside the administration with the broad brush of deep state.
Trump loyalists seem to be accelerating their attacks on key administration officials, including FBI Director Wray. Just a day after Wray’s September 24 testimony to a Senate panel that FBI officials “have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise,” Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows laid into him in a CBS interview. “With all due respect to Director Wray, he has a hard time finding emails in his own FBI, let alone figuring out whether there’s any kind of voter fraud.” Meadows reprised the attack a few days later in another CBS interview. “That’s my problem with Director Wray,” Meadows said. “They need to investigate” claims of voter fraud “and make sure that the voting populace—make sure that their vote counts and no one else’s does.”
Once more, the White House’s effort to conjure deep state detractors serves mostly to distract attention from an actual election-related conspiracy hiding (more or less) in plain sight: the renewed specter of Russian interference in the 2020 election cycle. The FBI and intelligence veterans see growing signs that the Kremlin is exploiting Trump’s constant invocation of election fraud to expand its own campaign to scramble the final weeks of the American election so as to hurt Biden and foment distrust in the electoral process.
Earlier in September, FBI Director Wray testified twice before congressional committees about intelligence that Russia is aiming to “denigrate Biden” and “sow divisiveness and discord.” Wray also reported that the Kremlin is using social media and “proxies, state media, online journals” to hurt Biden. And in late September, the FBI and DHS jointly warned that foreign actors led by Russia are spreading disinformation and mimicking unfounded charges by Trump, like the president’s allegation that mail-in ballots will lead to “massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 election.”
CIA veterans also report that we’re now witnessing ample cross-fertilization between the conspiratorial messages spread by Trump and Moscow. “Trump’s efforts to deflect from criticism that he is aligned with Russian interests are increasingly difficult to avoid,” John Sipher says. “He has shown a pattern of mouthing Kremlin talking points and disinformation to the point where he has become a source of material for Putin’s intelligence services. Unlike 2016, the Russians hardly have to invent disinformation—instead, they can simply quote and amplify Trump’s own words in order to stoke chaos and create confusion in the U.S. electorate.”
“Conspiracy theories are the domain of the ignorant and uneducated, who long for an explanation for events or circumstances that are beyond their grasp,” says Marc Polymeropoulos, who spent 26 years in the CIA’s senior intelligence service. “When politicians adopt them, particularly those with followings at a national level, they are weapons that can be used for malicious purposes, and hostile intelligence services can weaponize these conspiracy theories, with the assistance of our politicians (wittingly or unwittingly), and can cause mayhem and chaos for their adversaries.”
“Trump’s obsession with the deep state falls in this category,” Polymeropoulos explains. “He finds that anyone who objects to his policies or beliefs—most of which are far outside the mainstream of traditional rational thinking—are deep staters who want to block his agenda.”
The underlying logic is simple, he observes—and can be easily repurposed to damage the credibility of any agency or official the Trump administration chooses to designate as its foe of the moment. “The [intelligence community] assesses that Russia is our enemy—there you go, it’s the deep state again. He believes in a new drug to fight Covid, yet the CDC and FDA say that there are not enough trials to state conclusively that the drug works. Again, the deep state is blocking his agenda.”
There’s no apparent outer limit to adapting deep state credos to serve the bald political agenda of the Trump White House and his campaign—except to acknowledge that the Trumpian version of the deep state keeps defying hard evidence and science, while operating without accountability and transparency. Regardless of how the balloting plays out in next month’s election, it seems clear that a key legacy of Trump’s presidency can be summed up in one simple phrase: “The deep state—c’est moi.”