When Donald Trump took office, there was a sense among career bureaucrats that the new president would be outmatched by the vast United States government. Seasoned officials would serve as “the adults” in the room, deflecting the new president’s worst ideas, waiting out his impulses, and protecting the State and Justice Departments from lasting harm. They were smarter than Trump was, and they would outlast him. Three years later, those “adults” are gone, and, as one former high-ranking government lawyer says, those who still think they can contain the president are “fooling themselves”—Trump is “light-years ahead of them.”
“How to Destroy a Government,” The Atlantic’s April cover story, by staff writer George Packer, reveals in stark detail how President Trump is winning his war on American institutions. By punishing perceived enemies, driving out competent career bureaucrats, and disregarding democratic norms, Trump has bent the executive branch to his own self-interest. Packer writes that Trump’s actions have revealed “how many things that had always seemed engraved in monumental stone turned out to depend on those flimsy norms.” Through dozens of interviews with current and former officials at the FBI, the State Department, and the Department of Justice, Packer exposes the current precariousness of these establishments, where morale is low, public servants worry about having their lives and reputations destroyed through a presidential tweet, and mid-career professionals are debating how much longer they can continue to serve their country.
Government officials take an oath to protect the Constitution, but from the moment Trump entered the White House, he made it clear that loyalty to him was paramount. Packer tells the story of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who describes how Trump turned to Twitter to attack him and assault his professional integrity after he became involved in the Russia investigation. McCabe tells Packer that in addition to the public insults, Trump simultaneously tried to humiliate him privately—insulting McCabe’s wife, trying to drive a wedge between him and his colleagues, and working to extract pledges of fealty.
Trump eventually induced the firing of McCabe when he was just 26 hours short of retirement, part of his effort to force out every member of the FBI leadership who’d investigated him. As Andrew McCabe’s wife, Jill, explains: “There’s a lot of people out there who are unwilling to stand up and do the right thing, because they don’t want to be the next Andrew McCabe.”
By making an example of the McCabes, Trump created a culture of fear that reverberated through the Department of Justice. Erica Newland, a DOJ attorney who resigned in 2018, described the fearful silence that replaced open discussion. Career officials, Packer writes, “saw what was happening to colleagues in the FBI who had crossed the president during the investigation into Russian election interference—careers and reputations in ruins.” She and her colleagues used their skills to justify presidential orders of sometimes dubious legality. “There was hardly any respect for the other departments of government—not for the lower courts, not for Congress … for facts or the truth,” Newland told Packer. “Corruption is the right word for this.” Things got so bad in the Office of the Legal Counsel, Newland tells Packer, that she began analogizing herself and her colleagues to Nazi bureaucrats in the 1930s—how far would their complicity go before they stopped rationalizing it?
Since his appointment as attorney general, William Barr has abetted the president’s efforts to silence dissenters and expand the powers of the presidency. As Packer writes: “Barr and Trump are pursuing very different projects—the one a crusade to align the 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.”
The cost of Trump’s war on the civil service has been both human and institutional. Take Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. As false reports about her spread in the right-wing media, and through the president’s Twitter account, in March 2019, Yovanovitch asked for a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that she had his full confidence. Pompeo declined, Packer reports, and said that no statement would be made on her behalf until those attacking her—Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity, and others—were asked for their evidence. Senior career officials also declined to support Yovanovitch, a sign that professional morale and independence were being destroyed by relentless politicization. Packer writes: “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. … while Pompeo is still there and above him, so is the president. Trump is winning.”
Read “How to Destroy a Government” at The Atlantic. The April issue of the magazine appears on newsstands on March 17, and pieces will continue to publish at The Atlantic across the coming weeks.
Anna Bross + Helen Tobin // The Atlantic