White House intrigue is not a ‘deep state’ conspiracy

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After the shock of last week’s New York Times opinion piece by an anonymous senior official who brags about participating in clandestine efforts to thwart President Trump — following closely on the heels of salacious revelations excerpted from Bob Woodward’s new book that portray a White House riven by infighting and almost unthinkable episodes of defiant insubordination (reportedly stemming from doubts about the president’s leadership fitness among his top aides) — it is unsurprising that some have taken all of this as further proof that a sinister “deep state” conspiracy is working behind the scenes to undermine the duly-elected President of the United States.

The problem with this notion is that none of these revelations has anything to do with the so-called “deep state,” even allowing for the fraught and imprecise connotations that this term has acquired in recent national political discourse.


Make no mistake, we are in dangerous, mostly uncharted waters if it is even remotely accurate that senior national security officials have been working clandestinely to “rein in” the president they serve. What you think about these revelations probably depends mostly on how you feel about President Trump. But regardless of whether you condone or condemn these officials for working at cross-purposes with the president, it is important to understand that we are not talking about the so-called “deep state” here.

Rather than an entrenched, permanent bureaucracy resisting the will of its political masters (the usual idea of a “deep state”), this purported resistance is by and among those same political masters, meaning the president’s own political appointees. This amounts to an extreme example of what is sometimes called palace politics — only here working against the president himself, which is surprising and significant, but still a very different kettle of fish.

For those who study American national security decision-making, differentiating between the influence of entrenched bureaucratic forces at lower levels and high-stakes political jockeying among the president’s own inner circle represents a key distinction. This is not merely a matter of nit-picking academic semantics. As my coauthors and I explore in a forthcoming research article, “Deconstructing the Deep State: Subordinate Bureaucratic Politics in U.S. National Security,” in the journal Orbis, the staggering growth of the American national security apparatus over the past few decades has given rise to far greater influence bubbling up from subordinate bureaucratic levels than in times past.

This is the real “deep state,” and its role and influence on national security deserves serious study and debate. However, this is a far cry from the plots and intrigues in and around the White House orbit that Woodward and Anonymous describe.

What we are seeing is not the work of a bureaucratic “deep state” so much as a potent manifestation of “the Blob” (recalling a term coined by Obama aide Ben Rhodes to describe the foreign policy establishments of the two political parties.) What makes this so interesting is that “the Blob” exists, in no small part, as a counterbalance to the bureaucratic “deep state.” How so? Because, unlike many democracies, the United States has a robust infrastructure to hold the permanent bureaucracy accountable to democratic outcomes, by dispersing thousands of presidential political appointees at different levels throughout the Executive Branch.

Each of these temporary political officials is hired by or on behalf of the president, at whose sole pleasure they serve. To maintain and replenish this small army of political overseers, both political parties have developed what amounts to a farm team system of national security experts with reliable partisan loyalties who work outside of the Executive Branch (in think tanks, Congress, industry, academia and so forth), all standing ready to enter or leave presidential service as election outcomes dictate. Notwithstanding President Trump’s obvious efforts to recruit from beyond this talent pool, his senior national security team still mostly hails to some extent from this Republican establishment.    

The fact that broad elements of the Republican national security establishment continue to harbor deep and abiding reservations about President Trump’s conduct of foreign policy is what largely accounts for the current spectacle of the president of the United States fighting sometimes public bureaucratic battles with his own top appointees. Maybe you see this as reassuring, and those appointees as courageous. Maybe you see it as dangerous, and those appointees as treacherous. Either way, it’s not the “deep state” you should be thanking or blaming.

Dr. David A. Cooper is The James V. Forrestal Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of a new graduate textbook, “Decision Making in American Foreign Policy: Translating Theory into Practice,” forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. All views expressed are strictly his own.

Tags bureaucracy Civil service in the United States Donald Trump Government Political appointments in the United States Political terminology

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