War has broken out, not on foreign territory or on our streets, but in the offices and hallways of the departments and agencies that create and execute the laws, policies, and regulations of the United States. Its sights and sounds are those of a bureaucracy in crisis: drafts of a dissent cable that are circulated, letters of resignation that are drawn up, whispered complaints to journalists, and even tears.
The immediate trigger was an executive order signed last week by President Trump that banned entry visas for refugees from seven Muslim-dominated countries. The order, which did not go through a normal review process, caused chaos and heartbreak at airports in the United States and around the world, where refugees with valid visas were turned back without warning, and even holders of green cards were detained.
The ensuing protests by thousands of people were the first signs of something going terribly wrong in America, like a body jerking when a foreign substance is injected into its veins. More symptoms of rejection soon emerged. Hundreds of diplomats at the State Department are signing an unusual dissent cable that gravely warns of political blowback, saying the ban will “alienate entire societies” and serve as a “tipping point towards radicalization.” And on Monday night, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the Department of Justice would not defend the ban in court because “I am not convinced … that the executive order is lawful.” Within hours, Yates was fired, accused in a venomous White House statement of betrayal and weakness.
As the now-familiar saying goes, this is not normal. On their own, none of these events would have been unprecedented. Just last year, 51 diplomats at the State Department filed a dissent memo over the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The replacement of agency heads, sometimes in unhappy circumstances, is a feature of every democracy. But these events have occurred in such a short period of time that the script of the first 10 days of the Trump Administration reads like the work of Le Carré come to America.
Perhaps most strikingly, bureaucracies appear to be taking sides and feuding with a sharpness that is characteristic of fractured and dysfunctional governments.
Before the election, the FBI publicly released far more information that was damaging to Hillary Clinton than to Donald Trump, and as a result many people concluded that the FBI and its director, James Comey, were pro-Trump. It was the opposite with the CIA, which appeared to be intentionally leaking information that was damaging to Trump’s campaign — and Trump himself lashed out at the CIA for doing so.
In another major schism – this one spanning two branches of the government — several federal judges issued stays against the immigration ban, finding it likely illegal, but some border agents refused to let their detainees speak to lawyers despite being presented with court orders instructing them to. Meanwhile, the bans were celebrated by unions representing more than 21,000 immigration officers. The unions, in a joint statement, congratulated the president for his “swift and decisive action” to keep America safe.
Over at the EPA, scientists say they are afraid to talk to journalists after the Trump administration demanded to know the names of officials who participated in climate-change negotiations. The newly installed head of the Department of Homeland Security clashed with the White House over its desire to appoint an anti-immigration extremist as his deputy. Congressional aides disclosed that they had secretly helped the White House draft the immigration ban and signed non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from telling their own bosses about it. And Trump’s senior political adviser, Steve Bannon, a white nationalist whose ex-wife accused him of domestic violence and anti-semitism, is orchestrating the White House’s executive orders in secretive ways that cut out most of the National Security Council staff and leave no paper trail that shows what happened.
Although this is all new to Americans, there is ample precedent overseas. I spent most of my life reporting on the breakdown of process and laws in foreign countries. The origin of the chaos is the assumption to power of a vastly inexperienced leader who is fantastically rich, psychologically unstable, unusually bombastic and trusts only a few people, mostly family members. This profile has elements of former and current rulers of Italy (Silvio Berlusconi), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev), the Democratic Republic of Congo (Mobutu Sese Seko), Venezuela (Hugo Chavez), Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Equatorial Guinea (Teodoro Obiang), to name just a few.
One of the things I learned while reporting from some of these countries is that when a war of bureaucracies breaks out, some bureaucracies are far more equal than others — in the sense of truly mattering in determining a nation’s fate. The dissent from within the State Department is significant, but when the normal inter-agency process of modern states breaks down, foreign ministries tend to be left in the cold, carrying out whatever policies are determined by the places where the real power resides: the security ministries and the presidential palace.
The rebellion at the Justice Department by Sally Yates is a type that will likely be short-lived; she was a holdover from the Obama administration, and Trump has already replaced her with a compliant prosecutor. Political positions of that sort, which fill the top tiers of most agencies, will soon be filled by Trump vassals. The fight within bureaucracies will shift to being between those loyalists and the career civil servants who compose the bulk of the federal workforce, which totals about 2.1 million people, plus 3.7 million who work as contractors.
An unusual appeal went out to federal workers on Monday from a former National Security Council staffer, Laura Rosenberger, who wrote to her former colleagues, “In many ways, you are the last line of defense against illegal, unethical, or reckless actions — which the first week of this administration confirm will abound.” Rosenberger added, “History has shown us that implementation of such policies depends on a compliant bureaucracy of obedient individuals who look the other way do as they are told. Do what bureaucracy does well: slow-roll, obstruct, and constrain. Resist. Refuse to implement anything illegal, unethical, or unconstitutional.
It is a stirring plea but there are many reasons why it might not ignite a rebellion among the legions of bureaucrats who make the government run from day to day. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, asked to respond to the dissent from the State Department officials on Monday, made it clear what the administration thinks of disloyalty. “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” he said. “I think they should get with the program or go.” I have heard these sorts of threats before, though not on American soil.
Where this goes from here is impossible to say. It’s as if we were caught in a rogue wave that has crashed down upon us, turning us head over heels, crushing our heads under its pressure, filling our lungs with water, breaking our bones with its power. And somehow we still expect to fully understand what is happening to us, where the wave will take us, and what condition we will be in when the waters recede.