Trump’s War on Institutions

From the intelligence community and the Justice Department to the free press and election system, the president has sought to undercut a host of American institutions.

President Donald Trump speaks during the commissioning ceremony of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., Saturday, July, 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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One of the most striking aspects of President Trump’s approach to governance is how many American institutions and governing norms he attacks and routinely undercuts. General Michael Hayden, who headed both the CIA and the National Security Agency under President George W. Bush, took note of that in a speech in March. “What I’m seeing is a straight-out attempt to delegitimize the bearers of facts,” he said at an event co-sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine and PEN America. “It’s a de-legitimization of those presenting you with something you’d rather not be presented with.”

Here is a list of 10 institutions the president has attempted to undercut, beginning with this week’s Twitter target:

The Department of Justice

The president has fired an acting attorney general and the director of the FBI, demanded the firing of the current acting director of the FBI, fired all incumbent U.S. attorneys before having replacements in mind, ridiculed his own attorney general, mocked the deputy attorney general, taken the unusual step of personally interviewing the nominee for U.S. attorney in D.C., called for the removal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, dismissed the effort as “the greatest witch hunt in political history,” and has people trying to dig up dirt on the special counsel’s team. One of his top surrogates, Newt Gingrich, this week call the Justice Department “an extraordinarily left-wing institution.”

The Intelligence Community

This week – six months after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia meddled in last year’s presidential election – came word that Trump still does not accept that reality. Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, disclosed that the president believes that if Russia had done that, they would have been so skillful that no one in America would have been able to detect it. He said Trump believes “maybe they did it, maybe they didn’t do it.” His continued dismissal of the unanimous conclusion, along with his propensity to bring up mistaken analysis before the Iraq war, grates on intelligence professionals already angry at his January tweet likening them to Nazi Germany and his undisciplined disclosure of intelligence in a May meeting with Russian officials.

The free press

A USA Today analysis showed, not surprisingly, that a free press – or, as he calls it, “fake news” – is the president’s favorite Twitter target, most notably in February when he called the news media “the enemy of the American People!” At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April, WHCA President Jeff Mason called out the president for “seeking to delegitimize journalists,” terming that “dangerous to a healthy republic.”

The Congressional Budget Office

Since its creation in 1974, the CBO has been respected for its non-partisan and independent analysis of bills moving through Congress. Several presidents who tried to rely on unusually rosy projections, have chafed at the CBO reports. But none like Trump. After the CBO challenged his budget deficit projections and offered a grim assessment of Republican health care bills, the White House issued a video, attacking its “faulty assumptions and bad math.” And Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told the Washington Examiner, “You’ve got to ask yourself, has the day of the CBO come and gone?”

The Judiciary

All presidents object when court rulings go against them. Trump calls into question the legitimacy of the decisions. He has attacked a “so-called judge,” threatened to break up the 9th Circuit, and repeatedly stresses that judges are “unelected,” and complained of “egregious overreach.”

The professional foreign service

It isn’t getting the headlines of the attacks on the press or the CBO, but the professional staff officers at the State Department and in the embassies feel they are in the White House crosshairs. They see the requests for deep budget cuts, the unfilled positions, the high-level meetings with no State Department attendees, and the closed offices and they sense a lack of interest in their work. Nothing better makes the point than seeing the White House dispatch the president’s 36-year-old son in law to Iraq and the Middle East.

The scientific community and academia

Probably no group feels more under siege with less voice to fight back than scientists. It is why they mobilized a March for Science in April. The administration attack is captured by Trump’s 2012 claim that global warming is a “hoax” created by “the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” It extends across policies on pesticides, climate change, fossil fuels and abortion and includes the slashing of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the dismissal of scientists at the EPA, and the nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis to head the science office at the Department of Agriculture.

Elections and voting

Trump repeatedly complained last year that the election was “rigged.” After winning, he blamed “fraud” and the votes of 5.7 million non-citizens for his loss of the popular vote, allegations he repeated this month in addressing his commission on election integrity.

A non-partisan military

In the campaign, he claimed to “know more about ISIS than the generals do” and complained they had been “reduced to rubble.” When a Navy SEAL was killed in a botched operation in Yemen, he noted it had been planned by “the generals” under President Obama. He has since praised “my generals” and “my military,” prompting former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to note acidly, “It’s not the president’s military, it’s the military of the United States of America.” In a speech last weekend, Trump crossed another line by urging an audience of uniformed military personnel to lobby Congress for more defense spending and to “call those senators to make sure you get health care.”

The government bureaucracy

The White House makes no secret it is targeting what it calls “the deep state” or “the administrative state.” And the civilian employees of the government are listening in fear. Their anxiety was heightened, according to former CIA Director Michael Hayden when FBI Director James Comey was fired. That, he said, “sends a chill throughout the federal bureaucracy.” Even more alarming to them was Trump’s speech in Warsaw when he likened bureaucracy to terrorism as twin threats to the West, warning against “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.”

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