The Trump Hotel in Washington is built inside the Old Post Office Building. Last time I visited the place, it was a tourist gallery, selling T-shirts, trinkets and ice cream. Now the tourist gallery has been transformed into a marble-clad, sparkly, luxury hotel. Instead of ice cream cones, there were carts with champagne on ice and a man behind me saying, “Now I just have to find summer jobs for my two sons.”
The president dined there last night, according to the Washington Post (whose proprietors rightly fear that democracy could die in Trumpian darkness). Naturally, the Post critic opined that the $54 steaks at the oh-so-boring BLT Prime steakhouse are overcooked and overpriced. But as my pro-Trump brother would remind me, “What else are they going to say?”
Drinking an overpriced cup of coffee in this sunlit atrium, four blocks from the White House, is as good a place as any to ask three hard questions about the wobbling state of Donald Trump’s union.
Is the 'administrative state' doomed?
The first question is raised by the morning edition of the Wall Street Journal, where right-wing stalwart Paul Gigot says, "Bannonism gets the headlines but can’t deliver votes on Capitol Hill."
Is that really true? Bannon, the Iago of the Trump White House, hopes Trump's faux State of the Union speech can jumpstart his audacious plan to “deconstruct the administrative state” that has arisen in Washington over the last century. Bannon is moving his various White House chess pieces (King Donald, Queen Ivanka and a whole lot of pawns) to advance this goal. Trump will provide some details tonight.
Will the Congress go along with what he proposes? Bannon’s agenda is radical but familiar, not unlike the one President Ronald Reagan brought to Washington in 1981. Then as now, the Heritage Foundation provided the policy playbook for those who want to privatize the government and seize taxpayer rents on behalf of well-connected business interests. Some people liken it to a "swamp."
Now that a Democrat no long occupies 1600 Pennsylvania, the capital's taboo on “deficit spending” is defunct, at least for the next four years. Trump will propose a $54 billion increase in the military budget and draconian cuts everywhere else. As a Republican Congress is unlikely to raise taxes, the deficit will grow. Only “deficit hawks” and Wall Street Democrats, two notably lame groupings, are likely to object.
The big money prize for the Heritage Foundation and Washington’s moneyed interests is Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Trump/Bannon/Ryan regime has not targeted these “entitlements," not yet. The White House knows full well that when just re-elected President Bush made a run at privatizing Social Security in 2005, he was quickly shot down, even though the Republicans controlled Capitol Hill. And Bush, amazing to say, was a lot more popular than Trump.
Of course, the Trump/Bannon junta could prevail. The Democratic Party was stronger under Bush II and Reagan than it is today. In the 1980s, a liberal bloc led by House Speaker Tip O’Neill controlled the House of Representatives. Reagan, a right-wing ideologue, had to negotiate with him if he wanted to get anything done. And so he did.
Now that the Democrats are marginalized and demoralized, Trump need only issue orders to Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get what he wants. But does that mean the odd philosophy of Bannonism can actually summon a congressional majority to deconstruct the modern administrative state?
As the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne recently wrote:
This is a war on a century’s worth of work to keep our air and water clean; our food, drugs and workplaces safe; the rights of employees protected; and the marketplace fair and unrigged. It’s one thing to make regulations more efficient and no more intrusive than necessary. It’s another to say that all the structures of democratic government designed to protect our citizens from the abuses of concentrated private power should be swept away.
The novelty of Trump’s Washington can be overestimated. President Reagan also came to office seeking to vanquish a decadent liberal bureaucracy on behalf of freedom-loving Americans. He stayed for a massive expansion of deficit spending and no great diminution of the size of government as measured by percentage of gross national product.
Washington has a way of foiling revolutionaries.
Ann Gorsuch, the mother of would-be Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, was the Scott Pruitt of her day, an EPA administrator who was going to dismantle the agency on behalf of free enterprise. Gorsuch did a lot of damage, but in the long run she failed. The EPA went on to implement bipartisan policies under presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama. These policies offended some business interests, and some believe they overregulated at times. But there is no doubt that EPA protected the country’s air, water, land, natural resources and wildlife, and it did so in ways that even conservative Republicans learned to accept.
Can Bannon, Trump, Ryan and McConnell roll back the 20th-century administrative state?
The answer is maybe—if they don't get a powerful pushback from civil society.
The Watergate question
A second question wafting in the air of the lobby of the Trump Hotel on the eve of Trump's SOTU comes from Joe Conason: Is this Watergate yet?
The question likens Trump’s growing legal and political problems to the early '70s scandal that forced Richard Nixon from office. It is a shorthand way of asking a more complicated question: Do the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of the U.S. government have sufficient evidence for criminal prosecution of Trump administration figures for their dealings with Russia?
And (liberal hearts go pitter-pat): Is there evidence of impeachable offenses?
Aside from Trump's casually tolerated violation of the Emoluments Clause, none has surfaced yet. But as Conason notes, "how many illegal acts does it take to get rid of this corrupt regime?"
A lot. But White House efforts to enlist the FBI in a bid to quash the story of the FBI-CIA investigation surely indicates that Trump and Bannon have something to hide and much to fear. The FBI, which was a bastion of support for Trump during the 2016 campaign, reportedly balked. Trump’s reaction was to tweet ever more furiously and defensively.
The FBI-CIA investigation has already damaged Trump, forcing the ouster of General Michael Flynn.
The Watergate question posits that Trump’s pre-election contacts with Russian officials were even more questionable than Flynn’s post-election chats. While leaks from unnamed CIA sources to the anti-Trump, pro-Obama/Clinton mainstream news organizations deserve to be treated with caution, a growing body of evidence (including the still unleaked transcripts of Flynn’s phone calls) indicates that Trump has a serious problem that is not going to go away.
The Watergate analogy should not be overstretched by sentimental Baby Boomers. Nixon was a crafty manipulator of the FBI and the CIA, and he acted in secret. Trump is an unreliable bulldozer who throws tantrums on Twitter. And even if evidence of impeachable offenses emerges, it probably would not sway the weasles Ryan and McConnell, the way it swayed Howard Baker, the pragmatic Senate Minority Leader in the 1970s.
But the FBI-CIA investigation of Trump might prompt rank-and-file Republican conservatives to do what they did at the end of Nixon’s reign: abandon their sinking president and run for the life boats.
Is Trump in his Watergate phase? Maybe—if the CIA and FBI have found evidence of criminal behavior in his entourage.
What about the deep state?
As controversy engulfed General Flynn, some people (like me) saw the workings of the "Deep State.” On the other hand, Ali Watkins of Buzzfeed confidently reported that the "deep state” does not exist. She interviewed top U.S. intelligence officials who were baffled. It was kind of like asking fish about the concept of water. They couldn't undersand the question.
The Deep State concept is useful, but the term itself has come to have conspiratorial overtones that can detract from its functional reality. The fact is that the United States of America has a "double government," as law professor Michael Glennon has dubbed it. That is to say, we have two governments: the Madisonian government (Congress, courts and the presidency) created by the Founding Fathers in 1789, and a national security regime, created by the National Security Act of 1947.
This second government may not be a “deep state," but it is a secretive part of the U.S. government that is effectively beyond the control of the Madisonian wing of government. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it is a fact Buzzfeed can confirm by the study of national security politics.
Consider the CIA’s drone program. President Obama, a lawyerly liberal, and Donald Rumsfeld, a blustery neoconservative, both sought to transfer the CIA drone program to the Department of Defense, on the understandable grounds that an intelligence agency does not need to have its own air force. Both Obama and Rumsfeld failed. The national security government prevailed over Madisonian government.
Of course, Donald Trump has no interest in taking on the U.S. military and the intelligence agencies. He will need the CIA drone program to escalate the war on ISIS, as he will surely advocate in his SOTU address. And he needs law enforcement, the armed forces and intelligence agencies to wage war on the media, as Bannon has promised to do.
But the Trump/Bannon junta is not doing a very good job of winning the other sectors of the government to their agenda. Can Trump and Bannon prevent FBI and CIA investigating a la Watergate? They just tried with the FBI and seem to have failed badly.
Nonetheless, this is the hardest of the three questions to answer. The military and the intelligence agencies stand to benefit from the massive militarization that Trump promises. But they do not stand to benefit from being identified with a president known to have acted disloyally.
I think Trump's pre-Election Day behavior with Russian state actors is so unusual and unprecedented as to constitute a threat to the national security agencies. I could be wrong. Michael Glennon thinks it is more likely that the national security sector will strike a bargain with Trump than challenge him.
In the end, the question about the Deep State is really a question about the viability of civil society resistance. Can Trump’s opponents in the streets, the public schools, the environmental movement, the immigrant community, the legal and scientific communities, and what’s left of the Democratic Party apply sufficient pressure to crack the façade of Republican unity on Capitol Hill and attract a block of Republicans (like Howard Baker) who will put country ahead of party?
The answer is: not yet.
Such is the state of Trump's union: an imperiled president says the state of the union demands radical change and asks the help of a supine Congress, while an imperiled administrative state seeks to protect constitutional government with the help of a burgeoning civil society protest movement and unknown allies in the FBI and CIA.
In short, the state of Donald Trump's union is unstable.