Just How Far Will Trump Go?

The president has dramatically accelerated the pace of his efforts to weaponize the federal government to his advantage.

President Trump, standing, raises his fist, with a dark sky behind him
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

President Donald Trump’s open admission yesterday that he’s sabotaging the Postal Service to improve his election prospects crystallizes a much larger dynamic: He’s waging an unprecedented campaign to weaponize virtually every component of the federal government to partisan advantage.

Trump is systematically enlisting agencies, including the Postal Service, Census Bureau, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, that traditionally have been considered at least somewhat insulated from political machinations to reward his allies and punish those he considers his enemies. He is razing barriers between his personal and political interests and the core operations of the federal government to an extent that no president has previously attempted, a wide range of public-administration experts have told me.

There’s always been temptation … but no president in modern times has taken action so explicitly and obviously—or transparently—to influence and actually direct these agencies to favor the party in power,” Paul Light, a public-service professor at New York University, told me. “None. None.”

Presidents have always put their stamp on the federal government. It’s common for regulatory agencies, for instance, to dramatically shift direction in their attitude toward Big Business when partisan control of the White House changes. And presidents have always rewarded their political supporters, at times causing scandals because of questionable Cabinet appointments or procurement decisions.

But no matter which individuals were appointed to lead them, some agencies have always been considered more protected from politics. It’s those barriers that Trump, with the tacit support of congressional Republicans, is steadily dismantling. Presidents have used the Postal Service to reward loyalists with jobs since the country’s earliest history. But they didn’t expect what Trump does from the agency. “The whole spoils system goes back to having supporters who were appointed as postmasters,” says Kedric Payne, the general counsel of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and a former top official at the Office of Congressional Ethics. “But it wasn’t to disrupt the election.”

The result of Trump’s moves: an executive branch whose full reach and power is being conscripted to serve the president’s immediate interests. “All of it comes from a place that whatever is in his personal interest—whether it’s financial, reputational, or political—if it benefits him, the government is merely a tool for serving himself,” Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics under former President Barack Obama, told me. “He has simply crossed lines that no one would even conceive of crossing in the past.”

His determination to harness federal power to his personal advantage links his choices throughout his presidency, including funneling federal dollars into businesses he owns and withholding military aid for Ukraine in exchange for an election favor, the actions that led to his impeachment in the House last year.

Experts I spoke with said that Trump has dramatically accelerated the pace of his efforts to weaponize federal actions since his Senate acquittal, when every Republican, except Utah’s Mitt Romney, voted to dismiss the charges against him with no sanction and not even a full-scale trial to explore the evidence.

Beyond his recent efforts to impede mail delivery, Trump has:

  • rapidly purged inspectors general across the federal government, replacing five of them within a short period, including the intelligence-community IG who forwarded to Congress the whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment.
  • openly pressured the Justice Department to back off the prosecution of his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and to request more lenient sentencing for his ally Roger Stone. Trump later commuted Stone’s sentence outright.
  • deployed federal law-enforcement officials from the Department of Homeland Security to confront protesters in Portland, Oregon, and other cities over the explicit objection of governors and mayors.
  • enlisted the military into his campaign against protesters, drafting Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley to accompany him during his walk to St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., after armed personnel forcibly cleared out peaceful protesters. The decision prompted so much concern in the military that Milley later apologized.
  • taken repeated steps to manipulate the results of the decennial census in a manner that could undercount people of color and benefit the Republican Party. The Supreme Court stopped Trump from adding a citizenship question to the census, but the administration now says it intends to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population counts used to apportion congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states. It also announced it will cut off efforts to contact households that haven’t responded to the census on September 30, despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Census experts and former Census Bureau directors have said that such a truncated schedule is guaranteed to undercount minorities.

The deployment of federal agents this summer may represent the most tangible manifestation of Trump’s determination to wield the federal government as a weapon against his political enemies. Light, who has studied the federal government’s operations for decades and is usually no alarmist, describes it as “shocking.” Sending those assets into cities over the objection of their mayors, he told me, “does resemble the early days of a police state, I’m sorry to say it.”

But if those deployments comprise the most visceral example, Trump’s attempts to manipulate the census may provide the most revealing measure of just how much he’s willing to distort federal operations to benefit himself and his party—and how far congressional Republicans will go in abetting him.

In the past, the census has occasionally faced questions about its accuracy. But never before has there been evidence of a president deliberately trying to skew the results in a manner that helps one party. “I don’t think there’s ever been a charge that the census was systematically unfair,” says Donald Kettl, a longtime scholar of federal administration, now at the University of Texas at Austin.

Until now, the reason for avoiding census tampering has seemed obvious: It was thought that everyone benefits from an accurate count (just as everyone was thought to benefit from an apolitical military, among other institutions Trump has tried to manipulate). Billions of dollars in federal aid are tied to population, so presumably every state would want as many of its people counted as possible. “A complete count is important no matter what state you are in, because so many federal and state programs are tied to the numbers of people,” Steve Murdock, who served as the Census Bureau’s director under President George W. Bush, told me. “You don’t gain much by not counting the people you have to provide services for.”

But in a political environment defined by widening polarization along racial and geographic lines, that traditional restraint has apparently broken down. Hardly any congressional Republicans have raised concerns about Trump’s determination to curtail the census count. That includes Republicans from highly diverse states across the Sun Belt, which are likely to be among the biggest losers if minority populations are systematically undercounted, both in terms of federal aid and the apportionment of congressional seats and Electoral College votes. This week, I asked the offices of GOP senators from Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Georgia if they had any objection to Trump short-circuiting the census count. All refused to respond, except Florida’s Marco Rubio, whose staff referred me only to a comment he’d made on a related issue, Trump’s effort to exclude the undocumented from apportionment. (And even on that question, Rubio avoided taking a definitive position.) Republican governors in those states have not raised concerns publicly either.

“I am just dumbfounded,” said Murdock, who also served for many years as Texas’s state demographer. “I don’t know why Texas would let this happen. The elected officials should be screaming: ‘Count those people; we are providing services for them.’”

Although the House has approved legislation extending the deadline for reporting census results until next April, giving the bureau more time to reach unresponsive Americans, the Senate has refused to consider the measure. Instead, just as with Postal Service slowdowns that may disproportionately hurt rural communities, many Republicans appear to have concluded that they are willing to accept collateral damage to their own constituencies for the partisan gain Trump’s actions could provide. Counting fewer people of color in Texas or Florida might mean fewer federal dollars, and even less representation in Congress. But it also could benefit Republicans in next year’s redistricting, making it tougher for civil-rights groups to legally challenge gerrymandered lines for providing insufficient representation to minorities.

“Republicans are in on the deal,” says Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the Democratic research-and-advocacy group NDN, referring to the GOP’s effective approval of Trump’s actions concerning both the census and the Postal Service. “They want Trump to blunt the size of the Democratic victory this year at all costs … They want Trump to stick his finger in the demographic dam that could make them the minority party for a generation.”

This corrosive synergy binds other elements of Trump’s campaign to weaponize more federal functions. Payne says Trump’s offensive has proceeded in two stages. First, he systematically defied congressional oversight—ignoring subpoenas and demands for testimony—and fired inspectors general who were in his path. Congressional Republicans helped by supporting his defiance of oversight and voting almost unanimously not to punish his actions in Ukraine. With those potential sources of resistance blunted, Payne says, Trump has moved more openly than before to manipulate federal operations that will directly influence the outcome of this election (the Postal Service) and the distribution of political power for years to come (the census).

“Where now that you have no recourse that Congress can take to impeach or investigate the administration, and you don’t have the IGs, that lays the groundwork to then go after these positions that could influence the election,” Payne says.

By politicizing agencies so overtly, Trump is creating a situation in which the right will accuse Joe Biden, if he wins, of engaging in political manipulation simply by reverting them to their more traditional roles. Conservatives, for instance, will surely scream if a President Biden removes loyalists whom Trump has installed in inspector-general positions.

An even more dramatic outcome of Biden winning in November: Some experts believe that his administration could reopen the census before transmitting the data for reapportioning congressional seats. Under current federal law, Trump must transmit the results to Congress for reapportionment purposes by year’s end. But some believe a President Biden could order the bureau to spend several more months pursuing the households it has not yet reached. “The next president can say, ‘I decertify it,’” says Robert Shapiro, who helped oversee the 2000 census as the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for economic affairs under Bill Clinton. “You can say, ‘I’m not going to redo it, [but] we are going to carry out the operation that was truncated.’” (There’s no apparent precedent for reopening the census during a change of administrations, which means that the Supreme Court would likely decide whether doing so is legal if Biden takes that route.)

And if Trump wins? The public-administration experts universally told me that the accelerating pace of Trump’s excesses—without meaningful complaint from congressional Republicans—signals that in a second term, he is likely to push much further in refashioning the federal government for his own ends.

Rosenberg framed Trump’s actions in dramatic terms. Trump, in his combative speeches around the July 4 holiday, claimed that “far-left fascism” is trying to “overthrow” and “destroy” American “civilization”—allegations that could justify almost any level of “authoritarian crackdown by the government of the United States against the president’s domestic political opponents,” Rosenberg argues. “We are watching an authoritarian in action before our eyes. And we haven’t woken up to the significance of what we are seeing, frankly.”

Those are accusations that have rarely been directed at an American president. But as students of democracy point out, the pattern of subordinating all government operations to the interests of one party, and even one individual, is a core characteristic of illiberal and authoritarian countries. Shaub, like Rosenberg, sees exactly that end point. “I think if he’s reelected, the republic may die—and I’m having to force myself to say ‘may’ so I don’t sound like a complete alarmist,” Shaub, now a senior adviser to the government-watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said starkly. “But I don’t see how the government can survive four more years of this … Whatever your worst fears are for whatever comes next aren’t as bad as it will be, by a long shot.”