OP-ED: Forget the ‘deep state.’ What Trump hates is the state itself
President Donald Trump’s suggestion last week that the Ukraine whistleblower and his sources were no better than spies, and hinting at treason and the death penalty, has been variously described as despicable, terrible, un-American and reprehensible. I am here to tell you that it was actually worse than that.
Trump delivered his remarks before the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, a branch of the bureaucracy already under assault from his political appointees. The president might like to complain about the “deep state,” but what Trump really doesn’t like is the state itself — the idea of a nonpartisan, professional civil service responsible for executing policies and following procedure regardless of who is in office.
The U.S. Mission to the UN works in tandem with the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which was just the subject of a withering report by the department’s inspector general. It found evidence of harassment of career employees judged “disloyal” based on their perceived political views, retaliation for refusing to accede to conflicts of interest, and numerous other instances of disrespectful and hostile treatment.
The bureau’s politically appointed leaders ignored or deflected protests, in one case telling an employee that complaints were pointless because the Trump administration “has my back.” This climate of fear and mismanagement helped to drive away 50 out of the bureau’s 300 U.S. employees.
Trump’s remarks last week were short on gratitude and long on attacks on the press, Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden and the whistle-blower report. (As someone who used to draft speeches for embassy pep rallies for a U.S. president and secretary of state, I can tell you that Trump’s was not standard fare.) And given what the mission and bureau’s staff have already endured, his closing message was undoubtedly crystal clear: If you speak out against this administration, you will pay a huge price.
Sadly, many State Department officials are already conditioned by training and temperament not to rock the boat. During my foreign service orientation back in the 20th century, my class dutifully sat through a television documentary about an officer whose aggressive human-rights reporting derailed his career. The message was clear, despite the department’s clumsy attempt to show us that it did, in fact, tolerate dissent: a visit from two senior officers with tales of how they bucked the system and prevailed. Unfortunately, neither was still with the service — a detail that did not go unnoticed by me or my classmates. Turns out it takes real guts to be a whistle-blower.
That’s exactly the kind of courage that this administration doesn’t want to cultivate — notwithstanding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s empty pledges to restore “swagger” to his department. (Just ask the recalled U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, now cooling her heels in a fellowship despite a stellar career.) Trump himself has said that he prefers an administration filled with acting officials because they’re easier to push around. Next best, apparently, is an empty chair — witness this administration’s remarkable number of them. Rather than a fully staffed, well-resourced corps of civil servants sworn to uphold the Constitution, he wants a tiny band of loyalists bound by omerta.
President Teddy Roosevelt once described an efficient and professional civil service as a “powerful implement with which to work for the moral regeneration of our public life.” Trump, sadly, seems intent on degrading the quality of America’s civil service — and using it for the opposite purpose.
— James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.