Who exactly is in charge in the Trump White House? That the question is being raised at all is reportedly very vexing to President Donald Trump, and understandably so. If it really is true that an internal “resistance” within his administration is undermining his authority, as many have convincingly claimed, he has every right to be concerned, as do all of us. The executive branch is as powerful as it is vast, yet its power ultimately rests on its democratic legitimacy. If the elected president is not truly in charge, that legitimacy is dangerously compromised, as my colleagues David A. Graham and David Frum have recently argued. At a rally in Billings, Montana, the president seemed to agree with them, warning a receptive audience that “unelected deep-state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” But before Trump can reassert his command, he must confront his own role in allowing his administration to descend into chaos.
The first challenge facing Trump is distinguishing between the “deep state,” a favorite term of Trump’s for veterans of the federal bureaucracy who are in a position to defy his authority, and the “swamp creatures,” his decidedly unflattering characterization of the nation’s permanent political class, its GOP wing very much included. Some of the president’s recent remarks, including his Billings address, elide this distinction between the deep state and the swamp creatures. Though it’s certainly true that the internal resistance consists of unelected women and men, its most consequential members aren’t deep-state operatives. They are, to the contrary, Republican operatives he himself appointed to high office.