Trump vs. the government: A mutual mistrust society?

New administration already fostering resistance

WASHINGTON, D. C. — For 40 years, Republicans having been running for government office by running against the government.

In his first inaugural address, in 1981, Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Bashing bureaucrats and big government has been standard fare on Republican menus ever since.

Donald Trump, as candidate and president, has continued that tradition — with a vengeance.

“Have we seen some of this anti-government talk before? Yes, but never at this decibel level, with this kind of language and the kind of volume you see with Trump’s tweets,” said Donald F. Kettl, professor and former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and author of an upcoming book about trust in government.

The crucial question going forward is whether the Trump administration’s aggressive criticism of the federal government, “bureaucrats,” and individual public servants will foster unusual levels of resistance and subterfuge in what is often called the permanent government. Early signs point to unprecedented levels of feuding.

Draining the swamp

Trump notoriously smashed old taboos and etiquette in his run for the White House, insulting his opponents with put-downs like Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco and Crooked Hillary. He also made quantum leaps in the craft of beating up on government with poison-tipped spears that will not be quickly forgotten among public servants.

Trump took on the most sacred of political sacred cows. “Our military is a disaster,” Trump said. He called “the generals” (his chosen phrase) “rubble.” “They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing to our country,” he said. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” candidate Trump boasted. “Believe me.”

As president-elect, Trump ripped into intelligence agencies after they issued a report about Russian meddling in the campaign. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” he said. In refuting the report, Trump cited Russian sources and Julian Assange as more credible sources. He accused the outgoing head of the CIA, John Brennan, of leaking “fake news.”

Many in the intelligence community are not likely to forget Trump’s dark Tweet, “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

Now as president, Trump has berated the FBI, among other agencies, via Twitter, “The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time. They can’t even … find the leakers within the FBI itself.”

After FBI Director James Comey denied Trump’s incendiary charge that former president Barack Obama ran wiretaps into Trump Tower, Trump’s spokespeople formally stated that the president did not believe Comey.

When a group of State Department staffers published a letter on the department’s traditional “Dissent Channel” arguing against administration’s first travel ban, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it? I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon brought a broader political dimension to the anti-government rhetoric when he told the CPAC conference in February that the administration is committed to “deconstruction of the administrative state.” It is not entirely clear what that phrase means, but it has become a battle cry for administration efforts to tame the bureaucracy. Right-wing media increasingly talks about how the administration needs to slay something called the “deep state,” a phrase once used by political scientists to describe how real power sometimes resides in the military and the bureaucracy in weak democracies.

“We’re up against a permanent bureaucratic structure defending itself and quite willing to break the law to do so,” Trump ally Newt Gingrich told The New York Times in a story about the “deep state” idea.

“It is clear that Trump doesn’t trust bureaucrats and that he doesn’t think bureaucrats deserve his trust,” Kettl said. “That’s part of what he means when he says drain the swamp.”

Swamp creatures have feelings, too

Trump’s fiery rhetoric could soon prove to be an obstacle to effective statecraft and policy implementation. “Trump’s statements have poisoned the well to a degree,” according to Christine Todd Whitman, director of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. “If the career staff doesn’t believe you, if they don’t trust you, then things can get very cumbersome.”

Brutal policy and ideological disputes between the White House and the rest of the executive brunch are as old as the Constitution, but, like everything in this period of polarization, are more intense now. And Trump’s extreme language and personal attacks have fostered a climate of mistrust in federal trenches.

“Trump should know as someone who has franchised his name that you are only as good as the people you do business with and the people who work for you,” Kettl said. “If I am being attacked by you, I’m wondering how hard should I work.”

A provoked, unfriendly bureaucracy — from civil servants to spies, bureaucrats to soldiers — can effectively throw sand in the gears of a presidential administration in many ways:

  • Traditional news leaks. Anecdotal evidence from newsrooms suggests that the overall amount of Washington leakage is way up and decidedly not pro-Trump. The White House itself has been a bonanza for scoop hungry reporters.
  • Untraditional leaks. Administrators, specialists and experts in the various agencies can and will supply important information to interest groups, congressional staff and lobbyists to give them ammunition they need to fight policy battles more effectively.
  • Litigation. The Trump administration learned with the first travel ban that the states, especially ones controlled by Democrats, can and will oppose policies with litigation. Interest groups can do the same (Judicial Watch’s suits against the Clinton and Obama administrations are a prime example). Government workers can aid or resist such litigation; whistleblowers can expose new issues and controversies. Some deep-pocketed opponents of Trump are looking for opportunities to fund this kind of litigation.
  • Slow-walking. “The British civil service … is a beautifully designed and effective braking mechanism,” according to the late British politician Shirley Williams. So is ours. The bureaucracy can resist with, well, bureaucracy —delays, rules, passivity and paperwork — it is an ancient art.
  • Social media “resistance.” Since the election, scores of social media cadres have sprung up to fight Trump within the bureaucracy by gathering allies, publicizing uncovered policy changes, leaking information and courting public opinion. On Twitter, for example, @ALT_DOJ, “The unofficial ‘Resistance’” at the Department of Justice, has 107,000 followers; @ALTStateDpt has 170,000 followers for “News & opinion on the State of #Resistance”; @altNOAA has 144,000 people following its posts that are mostly about climate science.
  • Public protest. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, for example, refused to argue the administration’s case for the travel ban and was promptly fired. In Chicago, EPA employees marched in front of their office.

“What President Trump is discovering is that he has a huge, huge problem underneath him, and I think he’s shocked that the system is as hostile as it is,” Gingrich said.

The shocks are likely to get worse.

Kettl believes Trump is ignoring basic lessons from the past two presidents. He says both Bush and Obama were badly damaged by mess-ups far down the bureaucratic food chain from the Oval Office.

President Bush enjoyed deep support after 9/11 that was undercut by the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and he didn’t recover. Similarly, President Obama’s approval took a hit that wasn’t easily reversed after the launch of the Affordable Care Act web site crashed.

“Trump will own all problems that come up from here on in,” Kettl said, whether it’s long lines at airport security, a blown hurricane forecast or an outbreak of the Zika virus. He warns that Trump is courting disaster by antagonizing his own government.

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