Impeachment and the Fight Over the Deep State 
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Impeachment and the Fight Over the Deep State 
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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Why is official Washington so determined to rid itself of Donald Trump? The usual answers focus on the country’s ideological divisions, now calcified in the parties, and Trump’s polarizing personality. Democrats of all stripes truly loathe him. All true, but those are only part of the answer. 

There is a deeper reason that helps explain both the origins of the impeachment articles and the larger movement to remove Trump. The key is that Trump not only ran against Washington’s entrenched power, he is actually delivering on that promise. Nothing is more dangerous to the Beltway’s power and profits, to its most powerful actors and the foot soldiers behind them. Those endangered interests are the essential backdrop to the House impeachment and Senate trial. 

Trump not only ran against the capital’s lobbyists, lawyers, and bureaucrats, he has avoided capture by them since taking office. Instead of making his peace with traditional Republican constituencies, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he has shut them out. He pays little attention to familiar Republican think tanks. Instead of deferring to state party leaders, he stepped into the primaries, backed his own candidates (often underdogs), and showed it was fatal for Republicans to oppose him. Back in Washington, the Democrats shut out Trump, deciding from the outset to block as many of his Cabinet and judicial appointments as they could. The result is that Trump firmly controls his own party and is uniformly opposed by Democrats, who are otherwise fractured by ideology and age. 

For all his well-earned Pinocchios, Trump has governed exactly as he promised: as an outsider and disrupter. It is hardly surprising to find the losers fighting back hard. They realize Trump’s massive deregulation and his appointment of conservative judges is the most comprehensive effort to roll back the administrative state since it developed under Franklin Roosevelt, expanded under Harry Truman, and flourished under Lyndon Johnson and later. 

From Trump’s perspective, impeachment looks like another attempt by deep state actors and their allies in the Democratic Party and media to unseat a duly elected president. That’s how the White House and its allies view the initial counter-intelligence investigation of Trump’s campaign, its morphing into a criminal investigation, and the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, after leaks by ousted FBI Director James Comey. After two years of deep drilling into a purported “Trump-Russia conspiracy” came up dry, Trump and his supporters want to know how it all got started and why it continued so relentlessly on such thin evidence. 

They see the answer in a close partnership between bureaucratic functionaries, mainstream media, and high-level Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign and senior Obama officials such as John Brennan, James Comey, James Clapper, Andrew McCabe, and their colleagues at the National Security Council and Departments of Justice and State. Trump and his supporters see far worse than the “extreme sloppiness” Comey has acknowledged. They see crimes and deceit. 

U.S. Attorney John Durham seems to be finding the same thing. The targets of his criminal investigation are emblematic of entrenched Washington power and corruption. 

The future of that entrenched power -- the administrative state -- is the most profound battle in American politics today. Trump picked that fight himself, though he may not have fully comprehended its gravity or the manifold tools that could be used against him. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Rachel Maddow, “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community -- they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Schumer should have included the Department of Justice and FBI. It is the nexus of those institutions that launched the investigations of Trump, now culminating in both his impeachment trial and Durham’s investigation. 

The permanent government has bared its teeth at Trump not because he is uncouth, erratic, or untruthful or because he “obstructed Congress” or “abused his office” (whatever those mean). They oppose Trump because he threatens their once-secure political world. He is abolishing long-standing regulations at an astonishing clip and appointing federal judges who, for the first time in decades, refuse to ratify far-reaching regulations and executive orders that are only loosely tethered to statutory laws. 

This judicial challenge to “bureaucratic delegation” is being led by Neil Gorsuch at the Supreme Court and Neomi Rao at the Court of Appeals in D.C. They acknowledge that bureaucracies can fill in the “details” of laws, but only if the laws offer clear guidance. Liberals correctly say that enforcing this criterion retroactively would abolish the modern federal government. They know it is a tissue of regulations loosely based on underlying laws. 

No one is advocating such a radical change, digging up Calvin Coolidge from his eternal rest. But even restrictions on future administrative fiat would roll back much that progressives have won over the past century. This larger battle is why Rao’s confirmation was so bitterly contested. It is why Justice Gorsuch attracted such attention with his dissent from a court decision giving the attorney general broad authority to set rules governing some sex offenders. The problem, he said, was the statute did more than ask the AG to fill in some technical details. In practice, it asked him to write the law. 

If Trump appoints more conservative justices, Gorsuch’s views could become the majority. Such a shift would not only restrain bureaucrats, it would fundamentally reorder how Congress and the White House make the nation’s laws. It would also rein in judges who want to fill in those details themselves instead of simply ruling the law is too vague. 

All Democrats oppose these efforts to curtail America’s centralized, activist state and limit its bureaucratic power and autonomy. They are joined by their media allies, led by the Beltway’s hometown paper, the Washington Post. They rightly understand this constantly expanding state structure is the fruition of a century of progressive policies, first articulated by Woodrow Wilson and steadily implemented since Franklin Roosevelt. They became truly dominant by the late 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson passed his Great Society programs. Barack Obama extended that long arc by passing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and governing with his “pen and phone.” 

Democrats stand together against this effort to reduce Washington’s power and restrain its bureaucratic fiat. Where the left and center differ is how many new tasks the state should undertake and how it should pay for them. Free college? Medicare for all? Naturally, the socialist wing is pressing hardest for a bigger, more ambitious central government. What Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and their allies have never addressed is the glaring contradiction between their populist demands, which seek more democratic control, and their policy proposals, which inevitably hand decision making over to unaccountable professionals. 

Trump is challenging both wings of the Democratic Party, as well as the dominance of bureaucratic rulemaking and the lobbyists who tweak it for their clients. He is openly confronting the administrative state, with its centralized power, its regulatory control over citizens’ lives, and its discretion to set rules outside of any democratic controls. 

This fundamental challenge forms the backdrop of the unending efforts to spy on Trump, the damning leaks from law enforcement and the CIA, the House impeachment, and now the Senate trial. Trump himself will make it a central issue in his reelection and his effort to keep the Senate in Republican hands. With Chuck Schumer as Majority Leader, Trump can’t appoint the judges he needs to battle the Washington bureaucracy. Big stakes, indeed. 

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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