They didn’t grasp the readiness of large numbers of Americans to accept, even relish, Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and basic decency. It took the arrival of such a leader to reveal how many things that had always seemed engraved in monumental stone turned out to depend on those flimsy norms, and how much the norms depended on public opinion. Their vanishing exposed the real power of the presidency. Legal precedent could be deleted with a keystroke; law enforcement’s independence from the White House was optional; the separation of powers turned out to be a gentleman’s agreement; transparent lies were more potent than solid facts.
…This is the story of how a great republic went soft in the middle, lost the integrity of its guts and fell in on itself—told through government officials whose names under any other president would have remained unknown, who wanted no fame, and who faced existential questions when Trump set out to break them.
…When she read that producers of ‘The Apprentice’ had had to edit episodes in order to make Trump’s decisions seem coherent, she realized that the attorneys in the Office of Legal Counsel were doing something similar. Loyalty to the president was equated with legality. “There was hardly any respect for the other departments of government—not for the lower courts, not for Congress, and certainly not for the bureaucracy, for professionalism, for facts or the truth,” she told me. “Corruption is the right word for this. It doesn’t have to be pay-to-play to be corrupt. It’s a departure from the oath.”
…Cashing in—once known as selling out—became a common path out of government, and then back in and out again. “There was a taboo structure,” Kaiser told me. “You don’t go from a senior Justice Department position to a senior partner in Lloyd Cutler’s law firm and then go back. It was a one-way trip. That taboo is no more.”
…The revolving door didn’t necessarily induce individual officeholders to betray their oath—they might be scrupulously faithful public servants between turns at the trough. But, on a deeper level, the money aligned government with plutocracy. It also made the public indiscriminately cynical. And as the public’s trust in institutions plunged, the status of bureaucrats fell with it.
…To Trump and his supporters, the swamp was full of scheming conspirators in drab D.C. office wear, coup plotters hidden in plain sight at desks, in lunchrooms, and on jogging paths around the federal capital: the deep state. …Lofgren meant the nexus of corporations, banks, and defense contractors that had gained so much financial and political control—sources of Washington’s corruption. But conservatives at Breitbart News, Fox News, and elsewhere began applying the term to career officials in law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, whom they accused of being Democratic partisans in cahoots with the liberal media first to prevent and then to undo Trump’s election. Like fake news and corruption, Trump reverse-engineered deep state into a weapon against his enemies, real or perceived.
…Comey was a master at conveying ethical rectitude—he would rise above the din to his commanding height and convince the American people that the investigation had been righteous.
…[Trump] enraged a crowd in St. Augustine, Florida, with the made-up news that Clinton had corrupted the bureau and bought her way out of jail through “the spouse—the wife—of the top FBI official who helped oversee the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s illegal email server.” He snarled and narrowed his eyes, he tightened his lips and shook his head, he walked away from the microphone in disgust, and the crowd shrieked its hatred for Clinton and the rigged system.
…But Trump didn’t want true professionals. Either you were loyal or you were not, and draining the swamp turned out to mean getting rid of those who were not. His understanding of human motivation told him that, after his “pretty rough” treatment, McCabe couldn’t possibly be loyal—he would want revenge, and he would get it through an investigation. In subsequent conversations with Comey, Trump kept returning to “the McCabe thing,” as if fixated on the thought that he had created an enemy in his own FBI.
…Presidents are not supposed to call FBI directors, except about matters of national security. To prevent the kind of political abuses uncovered by Watergate, Justice Department guidelines dating back to the mid-’70s dictate a narrow line of communication between law enforcement and the White House. Trump had repeatedly shown that he either didn’t know or didn’t care.
…The purpose of Trump’s tweets was not just to punish McCabe for opening the investigation, but to taint the case. “He attacks people to make his misdeeds look like they were okay,” Jill said. “If Andrew was corrupt, then the investigation was corrupt and the investigation was wrong. So they needed to do everything they could to prove Andrew McCabe was corrupt and a liar.”
…Every member of the FBI leadership who investigated Trump has been forced out of government service, along with officials in the Justice Department, and subjected to a campaign of vilification. Even James Baker, who was never accused of wrongdoing, found himself too controversial to be hired in the private sector. But it is McCabe’s protracted agony that provides the most vivid warning of what might happen to other career officials if their professional duties ever collide with Trump’s personal interests. It struck fear in Erica Newland and her colleagues in the Office of Legal Counsel. It chilled officials farther afield, in the State Department. “There’s a lot of people out there,” Jill said, “who are unwilling to stand up and do the right thing, because they don’t want to be the next Andrew McCabe.”
…[Barr] is a Catholic—a very conservative one. John R. Dunne, who ran the Justice Department’s civil-rights division when Barr was attorney general under Bush, calls him “an authoritarian Catholic.” Dunne and his wife once had dinner at Barr’s house and came away with the impression of a traditional patriarch whom only the family dog disobeyed. Barr attended Columbia University at the height of the anti-war movement, and he drew [a conclusion] from those years that shaped many other religious conservatives as well: The challenge to traditional values and authority in the 1960s sent the country into a long-term moral decline.
…Barr published the same argument, with the same military metaphors, as an essay in the journal then called ‘The Catholic Lawyer.’ “We are locked in a historic struggle between two fundamentally different systems of values,” he wrote. “In a way, this is the end product of the Enlightenment.” The secularists’ main weapon in their war on religion, Barr continued, is the law. Traditionalists would have to fight back the same way.
What does this apocalyptic showdown have to do with Article II and the unitary executive? It raises the stakes of politics to eschatology. With nothing less than Christian civilization at stake, the faithful might well conclude that the ends justify the means.
…In Barr’s expansive view of Article II, it was nearly impossible for Trump to obstruct justice at all.
…“Republics have fallen because of [a] Praetorian Guard mentality where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences, and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion, you know, is somehow an enemy of the state. And, you know, there is that tendency that they know better and that, you know, they’re there to protect as guardians of the people. That can easily translate into essentially supervening the will of the majority and getting your own way as a government official.” [Ironically enough this is Barr, speaking about those out his own clique.]
…Barr uses his official platform to gaslight the public. In a speech to the conservative Federalist Society in Washington in November, he devoted six paragraphs to perhaps the most contemptuously partisan remarks an attorney general has ever made. Progressives are on a “holy mission” in which ends justify means, while conservatives “tend to have more scruple over their political tactics,” Barr claimed.
…Barr and Trump are pursuing very different projects—the one a crusade to align government with his idea of religious authority, the other a venal quest for self-aggrandizement. But they serve each other’s purpose by collaborating to destroy the independence of anything—federal agencies, the public servants who work in them, even the other branches of government—that could restrain the president.
…As a candidate, Trump learned that a foreign country can provide potent help in subverting an American election. As president, he has the entire national-security bureaucracy under his command, but he needed several years to find its weak spot—to figure out that the State Department could be as corruptible as Justice, and as useful to his hold on power.
…Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, bled the department dry. To purge it of bloat, he tried to gut the budget, froze hiring, and pushed out a large cadre of senior diplomats. Offices and hallways in the headquarters on C Street grew deserted. When Pompeo became secretary, he promised to restore “swagger” to diplomacy. He ended the hiring freeze, promoted career officials, and began to fill empty positions at the top—but he brought in mostly political appointees. According to Ronald Neumann, a retired career ambassador who is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, the politicization of the State Department represents “the destruction of a 100-year effort, from Teddy Roosevelt on, to build professional government separate from the spoils system.” The destruction, Neumann told me, is a “deliberate process, based on the belief that the federal government is hostile, and now you have to put in loyal people across the board in senior positions to control the bastards—the career bureaucrats. In the past it has been primarily a frustration that the bureaucracy is sclerotic, that it is not agile. But it was not about loyalty, and that’s what it’s about now.”
…It was followed by several more articles filled with conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton. The reporter, John Solomon (who stands by his stories), was getting his information from Giuliani and his associates. Solomon had come to The Hill from Circa News, a right-wing site that had published an identical falsehood about McCabe—that he had openly trashed Trump in a meeting—two years earlier. The Russia and Ukraine scandals are best understood as a single web of corruption and abuse of office, and Solomon is one of many strands connecting them.
…The State Department called ‘The Hill’s’ original story a “complete fabrication.” But as the lies spread among conservative media, triggering a barrage of attacks, Yovanovitch found herself in a crisis.
…She had taken an oath to defend the Constitution, not the president. Instead of tweeting allegiance to Trump, Yovanovitch recorded a public service announcement urging Ukrainians to vote in that country’s upcoming presidential election.
…He had strengthened the original State Department response to the first ‘Hill’ article, inserting the phrase complete fabrication, and when the attacks intensified he told Hale that the department needed to stand behind Yovanovitch. He spoke up despite his vulnerable status as a mid-level officer in line for a promotion to a senior position.
“Moments like this test people; they bring out one’s true character,” said Malinowski, who, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, heard days of testimony from ex-colleagues during the impeachment inquiry. “In normal times, it’s hard to know who would do what under those circumstances.” Kent’s first impulse was to prevent American policy from being corrupted in Kyiv and Washington. Hale, in a more powerful job, put bureaucratic hierarchy and his own secure place in it first. As a result, Yovanovitch had no one to press the urgency of her case with her leadership.
…“I was flying solo,” McKinley told the House during the impeachment inquiry. “I didn’t know what the rules of engagement were. But I did know that, as a Foreign Service officer, I would be feeling pretty alone at this point.” So he got in touch with Yovanovitch, whom he knew, and with Kent, whom he didn’t. McKinley wanted to find out how they were doing. He was surprised to learn that he was the first senior official to contact them about the transcript of the Ukraine call. Kent was picking apples with his wife in Virginia when McKinley reached him. Afterward, he had to Google McKinley to find out who he was. “He appeared to me … to be a genuinely decent person who was concerned about what was happening,” Kent said in his impeachment testimony.
…When Kent noted that the department was being unresponsive to Congress, a department lawyer raised his voice at Kent in front of 15 colleagues, then called him into the hall to yell some more. He was putting Kent on notice not to cooperate. Kent wrote a memo about the encounter, which he gave to McKinley, who sent it to Hale and others … and then the memo disappeared into the files with all the other documents that the department refused to turn over to Congress.
…Bureaucrats never received such public praise as they did during the weeks of the impeachment inquiry. But the hearings left a misleading impression. The Ukraine story, like the Russia story before it, did not represent a morality tale in which truth and honor stood up to calumny and corruption and prevailed. Yovanovitch is gone, and so is her replacement, William Taylor Jr., and so are McKinley and others—Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was marched out of the White House in early February—while Pompeo is still there and, above him, so is the president. Trump is winning.
…Physical courage in battle is made easier by speed, adrenaline, comrades. “Moral courage—you have, in many cases, lots of time, it’s a solitary act,” he said. “You are fully aware of potential repercussions to your career, and it’s harder. It shouldn’t be harder—you’re not going to get killed—but that’s the way it is.”
…“Asking another country to investigate a prosecution for political reasons undermines our advocacy of the rule of law.” But if this principle had ever had currency in the Trump administration, it no longer did.
…Justice and State were obvious targets for Trump, but the rest of the executive branch is being similarly, if more quietly, bent to his will. One of every 14 political appointees in the Trump administration is a lobbyist; they largely run domestic policy. Trump’s biggest donors now have easy access to agency heads and to the president himself, as they swell his reelection coffers. In the last quarter of 2019, while being impeached, Trump raised nearly $50 million. His corruption of power, unprecedented in recent American history, only compounds the money corruption that first created the swamp.
…More than 1,000 scientists have left the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies, according to The Washington Post. Almost 80 percent of employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have quit. The Labor Department has made deep cuts in the number of safety inspectors, and worker deaths nationwide have increased dramatically, while recalls of unsafe consumer products have dropped off. When passing laws and changing regulations prove onerous, the Trump administration simply guts the government of expertise so that basic functions wither away, the well-connected feed on the remains, and the survivors keep their heads down, until the day comes when they face the same choice as McCabe and Yovanovitch: do Trump’s dirty work or be destroyed.
Trump is infecting the government with corruption? No shit, Sherlock?!