Specifically, the president is convinced that the Democratic National Committee and his enemies in the U.S. government — the people he sometimes calls the “deep state” — framed Russia as the nation that hacked the DNC in 2016. The world knows this because Trump privately asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to find a supposedly missing computer server that Trump’s fellow conspiracists believe will prove Russia’s innocence — and because his senior aides have been dispatched all over the world to recruit America’s allies to aid an “investigation” of the supposedly malicious origins of the U.S. government’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The idea of a secret deep state that outlasts presidential administrations and operates by its own hidden directives predates the Trump administration. Liberals once promulgated the narrative to explain how President Barack Obama failed to achieve all the change he had promised. And like many conspiracy theories, the deep state thesis incorporates some partial truths. It’s true that the U.S. government is a massive institution, populated by some two million civilian employees who serve across administrations of both parties. Many of those civil servants even share similar broad values — patriotism and civic responsibility, for example.
Where Trump and his fellow conspiracy theorists go wrong, though, is in assuming that all those people can be pulling in the same partisan direction, united by a single (and secret) common purpose.
Like their fellow Americans, government employees have a wide range of political beliefs. There’s no doubt that many of them preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in the last presidential election. But many of the U.S. government’s actions during the 2016 campaign ― including FBI Director James Comey’s press conference accusing Clinton of being “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information and his election-eve letter announcing the FBI had reopened its investigation into her emails ― hurt the Clinton campaign and boosted Trump’s.
So did the hack of the DNC’s emails. Independent experts, investigative reporters and the entire U.S. intelligence community have all determined that Russia was responsible for that crime.
But Trump and his supporters have been working on an alternative theory: that the FBI’s secret, nonpublic investigation of Trump campaign associates with connections to Russia during the 2016 campaign somehow hurt his electoral prospects. The fervent belief in that “alternative fact” is what led Trump to ask Zelensky to find that supposedly missing server that sympathetic conspiracy theorists contend will demonstrate that Russia isn’t to blame — and show that the “deep state” really is out to get the president.
It doesn’t make sense, of course. “I don’t know who needs to hear this (AGAIN),” Tim Miller, a Trump foe who was the communications director for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, tweeted on Monday, “but [the] idea that US intel was engaged in a global conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump does not really square with the fact that their only public involvement in the campaign was a press conference knifing Hillary in the closing weeks.”
Even though the conspiracy theory “has no validity,” it “sticks in [Trump’s] mind” because “he hears it over and over again” from his bagman and personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said Trump’s former top homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, speaking to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.
It’s easy to see why Trump might want to believe this. If true, which it’s not, this conspiracy theory would mean that Trump is the victim of a loathsome and wide-ranging conspiracy. It would mean that, rather than having won the election while benefiting from Russian aid, he won the election in spite of an illegal and corrupt effort to bring him down.
“The Deep State is the big story of our time.”
The idea that elements of the government are working in concert to block the president’s agenda is an attractive one — so attractive, in fact, that it was once popular on the left. The roots of the deep state narrative in American political discourse lie not in Trump’s election, but in the partisan polarization that engulfed Obama’s presidency after the 2010 midterm election. It was former GOP congressional aide Mike Lofgren who, in a widely cited 2014 essay on BillMoyers.com, popularized the term “the deep state” to refer to “another, more shadowy, more indefinable government” that “operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.”
By that point, Lofgren was already a conservative apostate, having written a viral 2011 Truthout.org essay denouncing the takeover of the GOP by the tea party, which he characterized as an “apocalyptic cult” “full of lunatics” who espoused an anti-science, anti-intellectual line.
Like all grand narratives, Lofgren’s deep state treatise was wildly ambitious. He condemned congressional Republicans who desired to “render the executive branch powerless” and block Obama’s domestic agenda with their incessant filibustering and stonewalling. But in the wake of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, he also railed against a deep state that mired the country in endless wars and widening government surveillance, along with a financial elite who stymied real economic reforms.
“The Deep State does not consist of the entire government,” Lofgren wrote. “It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street.”
For besotted liberals in the Obama years, this was a beguiling narrative. It explained Obama’s failure to achieve much on the domestic front after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, while also excusing his administration’s dispiriting continuation and, in some cases, expansion of some of the Bush administration’s worst policies in the war on terror. Obama, Lofgren posited, had been captured — by the deep state.
“The Deep State is the big story of our time,” Lofgren claimed. “It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State.”
Then, as the 2016 election came into view, the deep state narrative made the leap into and metastasized throughout the right-wing press. In the fall of 2015, the alt-right, free-market, cryptocurrency-loving website Zerohedge picked up on Lofgren’s theory. In a pair of influential posts written by “Tyler Durden,” the site’s house pseudonym, ZeroHedge amplified Lofgren’s manifesto, calling the deep state the modern-day offshoot of what Dwight Eisenhower once described as the “military-industrial complex.” In an unwittingly prescient summary of Trump’s paranoia, Zerohedge warned in November 2015 that the “next president will ... also inherit a shadow government, one that is fully operational and staffed by unelected officials who are, in essence, running the country.”
Once sowed, the deep state narrative flourished in the conservative press, especially as the 2016 election neared and it became clearer to Republicans that Trump would likely lose the popular vote to former Secretary of State Clinton. “The real danger is not if Trump loses and somehow undermines the integrity of America’s democratic elections,” conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty warned in The Week. “The truly great danger is if he wins and America’s elite undermine the integrity of our democracy by failing to support his presidency.”
“Would the more than two million people employed by the executive branch faithfully execute the orders of a President Trump?” Dougherty wondered.
And so, when Trump entered the White House in 2017, he soon became obsessed with the idea that he was the victim of an effort by Obama administration loyalists to undermine his presidency.
“Trump’s key goal remains to cast doubt on the idea that Russian government operatives meddled in the 2016 election with the goal of helping him win.”
Trump was visibly insecure about being seen as illegitimate. He kept a stack of color-coded maps showing the 2016 election results by county in the dining room near the Oval Office to hand out to visitors. These maps, which showed great sweeps of red across America’s less-populated areas, were meant to obscure the fact that he lost the popular vote. Trump made his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, publicly declare that his inauguration was the most widely attended in history — even though it obviously was not.
Days before his inauguration, the intelligence community released an unclassified assessment that Russian government officials had interfered in the 2016 election with the goal of helping Trump win. The FBI was investigating Moscow’s election interference and whether the Trump campaign was in on the effort. Trump characterized the whole thing as a “witch hunt” by career officials who had stayed in office from the previous administration.
Trump teamed up with then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to try to come up with evidence to support the president’s baseless claim that Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. He also attempted to extract a loyalty pledge from Comey, the FBI director. When he didn’t get it, he fired Comey and tweeted about “Leakin’ Lyin’ James Comey.” He latched on to Lisa Page and Peter Strzok — now-former FBI officials who had an affair and exchanged private text messages about how they hoped Trump wouldn’t become president — as further evidence of a deep state campaign to delegitimize his presidency.
Meanwhile, Trump’s State Department purged career officials, accusing them of being “disloyal,” “traitors” and part of the “Deep State,” Vanity Fair reported in 2017. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a career government official who worked on the international nuclear agreement with Iran, was reassigned after Breitbart ran a smear campaign suggesting she would undermine Trump’s approach to that country.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones incubated the idea that the deep state was to blame for all of Trump’s problems and shortcomings as president. Several of Trump’s most outlandish claims were borrowed from Jones: the idea that the 2016 election would be “rigged,” the notion that Obama was the founder of ISIS. By 2017, hosts on Fox News, which Trump watches instead of reading the news, were thanking Trump for exposing the deep state. Trump first tweeted the term in November 2017, when he asked why “our deep State authorities” aren’t looking into “Crooked Hillary Emails.”
Over the years, these deep state conspiracy theories have twisted and blended together in the president’s mind into an incoherent hodgepodge of falsehoods that all lead to the same conclusion ― that Trump has survived sustained attacks by a powerful cabal of people within government who are hell-bent on destroying him. Trump’s key goal remains to cast doubt on the idea that Russian government operatives meddled in the 2016 election with the goal of helping him win.
Since 2017, Trump has repeatedly tweeted about the DNC’s refusal to turn over its hacked servers to the FBI for an investigation. Instead, the DNC hired Crowdstrike, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm, to investigate the hack; Crowdstrike then gave its forensic analysis to the FBI. Over time, this has morphed into the false conspiracy theory that there is a “missing server,” possibly located in Ukraine because a Ukrainian oligarch supposedly teamed up with the DNC to dishonestly implicate Moscow in the hack. None of that is true.
Until recently, it was possible to argue that Trump doesn’t actually believe this conspiracy theory, but was simply spreading it to rile up his base. But last week, it became clear that Trump’s tweets reflect his own understanding of events. We know this because he’s repeating the conspiratorial allegations he makes on Twitter in private, confidential conversations, too, according to the summary of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s Zelensky that the White House released last Wednesday. According to the summary, Trump told Zelensky: “Find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
On the same call, Trump told Zelensky that the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was “bad news” and was “going to go through some things.” The president’s issue with Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who joined the foreign service in 1986 and was abruptly recalled from Ukraine this spring, appears to be that he believes right-wing claims that she tried to stymie a Ukrainian investigation of those who purportedly aided the (non-existent) DNC plot against Trump in 2016.
“What President Trump asked for on that call did not appear to be the result of any sort of policy process. It was his own personal political agenda.”
“What President Trump asked for on that call did not appear to be the result of any sort of policy process. It was his own personal political agenda. Ambassadors carry out actions resulting from a policy process in the name of U.S. national security and Ambassador Yovanovitch is one of our best. I can only assume that she attracted his ire because U.S. national security priorities conflicted with his personal political agenda,” said Dana Shell Smith, a former ambassador who left the State Department after 25 years in June 2017.
“If there was a process, I think we’d all be interested to see it,” Smith added. “Otherwise, we’re left to believe that this is the president and his henchmen furthering his political goals with a senior, expert ambassador the collateral damage.”
But it doesn’t stop there: The president and his lieutenants appear to be trying to manufacture evidence to support their theory. Giuliani did it most explicitly when he urged officials of the U.S.-dependent government of Ukraine to investigate his claims. Trump echoed those requests in his call with Zelensky. And on Monday night, we learned that Attorney General William Barr is traveling the world, leaning on U.S. allies like Italy and the United Kingdom to aid in the probe that the Justice Department has spun up to “investigate the investigators,” as Trump has called for. The president also asked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for assistance in a recent call.
The Justice Department’s investigation is headed by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, whom Barr appointed earlier this year to oversee the probe. Durham has a bipartisan reputation: The Obama administration appointed him to write a secret report about the CIA’s torture program, which the Obama Justice Department then used to justify its decision not to hold any government officials accountable for the abuse.
It’s possible that Durham is conducting a legitimate investigation that will uncover wrongdoing by intelligence and law enforcement officials without appearing to endorse Trump’s conspiracy-mongering.
But it’s extremely unusual for any president to involve himself and his senior aides in pushing U.S. allies to help aid his domestic political goals, rather than the nation’s foreign policy aims. And it’s famously difficult for even the most well-respected nonpartisan figures to work for the Trump administration without becoming associated with the president’s bizarre beliefs. Kurt Volker, a highly regarded former ambassador to NATO, resigned last week as the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine after getting caught in the middle of the unfolding Trump-Zelensky scandal.
Durham, then, is trapped. If he sticks to the facts and refuses to endorse Trump’s conspiracy theory, he risks being accused of being a member of the “deep state” himself. If he decides to back the president’s ravings, he risks his reputation as a nonpartisan actor.
“What you don’t do is start mimicking things you know not to be true. Presumably speaking up for the facts means you may not get invited to briefings, but ultimately you’ve got to say things that are accurate and true,” said Joshua Geltzer, the director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a former official at the White House and Justice Department. “If the alternative is to succumb to echoing things that you know to be false, I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
But that’s the trouble with a president who believes fact-free conspiracy theories: All evidence to the contrary only confirms the rightness of his beliefs — and you’re either with him or you’re not.