Who Is Really Running the Government?

The specter of a “deep state” has served as a useful scapegoat in Donald Trump’s presidency, the alleged locus of resistance to his reign. Early on in his book “In Deep,” David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, asks “whether a ‘deep state’ exists in America.” At the start of his final chapter, he concludes, “There is no ‘deep state.’” But in the intervening pages, he raises more questions than he answers.

He begins with a brisk history of the phrase, which is rooted in Egypt and Turkey, where the military ran everything and nipped the slightest buds of democratic reform. The former Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott first applied it to American military and intelligence elites, in a book entitled “The Road to 9/11.” The alt-right adopted it in December 2016, after an anonymous author, using the pen name Virgil, wrote “The Deep State vs. Donald Trump,” a 4,000-word article in Breitbart News. Steve Bannon had been the executive chairman of Breitbart News, and became Trump’s chief strategist. Virgil broadened the term to encompass “the complex of bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats that likes things just the way they are” — including the “highly politicized” intelligence agencies and the “liberal apparatchiks” installed by President Barack Obama — who were now all engaged in “a great power struggle” with the newly elected president. Trump himself first invoked the term, Rohde reports, on June 16, 2017. He was retweeting a post by Sean Hannity, his favorite Fox News host, who had hawked a segment on his show that night on the ties between the “deep state” and the news media.

Did Trump and Bannon — does anyone in power — believe this conspiracy theory? Rohde goes back and forth on the question. He notes in passing (more detail would have been welcome) that Bannon fed the idea to Trump as a way of getting him to “distrust the advice of career government officials who opposed Bannon’s policy goals.” Meanwhile, Trump soon realized its power as a narrative device, invoking it last year at least 23 times. But Rohde also writes that, especially during Robert Mueller’s probe of his ties with Russia, Trump came to believe that “a cabal of Democrats and ‘deep state’ members were trying to force him from power.”

At times, Rohde suggests there is a deep state, though he calls it “institutional government,” a term he chose “for its relative neutrality.” Its denizens don’t form “an organized plot,” but they do exhibit “bias, caution and turf consciousness.” And, he writes, “the Justice Department and the F.B.I. and senior intelligence officials proved to be the most formidable resistance” the administration would encounter from within the federal government, initiating a “struggle for power that would define Trump’s presidency.” Notice: Rohde isn’t paraphrasing Trump’s point of view here; he’s describing what he sees as an objective situation.

So, is there a deep state, though one with a more neutral name and less cabalistic motives than the conspiracy theorists portray?

Much of the book charts the history of congressional oversight over the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., beginning, in 1975, with the committee chaired by Senator Frank Church. Its hearings and subsequent report unveiled a long and gruesome string of assassinations, wiretaps and assorted skulduggery — after which Congress passed laws restricting these practices. Rohde appraises subsequent presidents, after Richard Nixon, by how faithfully they held to these Church-era reforms.He seems to suggest, though he never outright claims, that the reforms muzzled what at least used to be a deep state. However, as countless books have documented, the C.I.A., far from being a “rogue elephant” (as Church described it), was, for the most part, executing the top-secret orders of the presidents it served. For instance, Operation Mongoose, the C.I.A.’s bungled plot to kill Fidel Castro, was authorized by President John Kennedy and run by his brother Robert, the attorney general — a fact that Church played down and Rohde doesn’t mention.

Some of the book’s most fascinating passages trace the rise of William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, from his time as a C.I.A. intern to clerking for a federal judge who ruled that Nixon had no obligation to turn over the White House tapes (a position that the Supreme Court would overrule unanimously), to serving as a legal assistant in Ronald Reagan’s White House — all of which hardened his commitment to a doctrine of presidential power and downgrading the role of Congress. Rohde highlights Barr’s activism, along with a small group of other conservative lawyers, in the Federalist Society and the Catholic Information Center, which now exercise enormous influence. (The five conservative Supreme Court justices have all been members of the Federalist Society, whose recommendations have also shaped Trump’s selections of lower-court judges.)

The tale of these groups is worth an entire book. But are they part of a new “deep state”? Rohde declares that they are, tossing in Trump’s relationship with Rudy Giuliani and Sean Hannity to boot. At the end of the book, he concludes, “Trump is creating a parallel, shadow government filled with like-minded loyalists, without transparency, democratic norms or public processes — a ‘deep state’ of its own.” It’s a clever punchline, but it’s wrong. Trump and his team are the opposite of a deep state. They’re operating in the open, running the top layer of the executive branch while decimating and dissing the denizens of the permanent bureaucracy in order to accomplish, as Bannon once put it, “the destruction of the administrative state.” And, unlike a deep state (whether mythological or real), after Trump leaves office they’ll be swept away.