Whether President Trump is feuding with a “deep state” that is working to undermine him, or he is simply encountering resistance from the mammoth federal bureaucracy he wants to shrink, the White House said Tuesday that it’s a battle as old as the country.
In his first two months as president, Mr. Trump has run up against leaks of classified intelligence alleging links of his campaign associates to Russia, the premature release of a draft memo on a proposal to bring back torture in terrorism interrogations, a petition signed by more than 1,000 State Department employees opposed to his immigration order halting travel from several predominantly Muslim nations, and federal judges blocking his immigration orders — twice.
And then there’s Mr. Trump’s first budget, which was met last week with opposition from the left and the right over a broad range of proposed program cuts.
“Washington is the only town I know where, if somebody attempts to slow the growth of government, that is referred to as a ‘budget cut,’” said John Malcolm, director of the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. “Sometimes people think that the federal government is your full employment agency backstop. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be.”
Since coming to Washington, one of Mr. Trump’s favorite activities has been leaving Washington. At a campaign-style rally in Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday night, the president promised that he is fully committed to cutting the federal government’s size and influence.
“Most importantly, we are going to take power back from the political class in Washington and return that power to you, the American people. It’s happening,” Mr. Trump said. “These entrenched interests will do anything they can to keep the broken system in place. But they will fail and we will win.”
Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend who is CEO of Newsmax, said Mr. Trump is approaching the cost of the federal bureaucracy in much the same way he ran his company. He said Mr. Trump has always been cost-conscious, even as a wealthy executive in the private sector.
“He’s very careful about how he spends money, and I think that’s translating into the country,” Mr. Ruddy said. “He’s looking at a lot of these federal agencies and programs and he’s saying to himself, ‘What are the results for the American people on this?’ He’ll look at arts funding and say, ‘Art is beautiful and great, I love it, but should the public be paying for it, and isn’t there a big private market out there for art?’”
Mr. Ruddy also noted that during the presidential race, Mr. Trump “spent a fraction of what Hillary [Clinton] spent and still won the campaign.”
“He doesn’t really believe in simply just going to experts and consultants and spending a lot of money,” he said.
Historically, the term “deep state” refers to a clandestine network of officials working covertly to undermine a government. Asked Tuesday if the White House believes Mr. Trump is battling a “deep state” of career government officials working against him, White House press secretary Sean Spicer chose another term for it — “Ramspecking,” a reference to the 1940 Ramspeck Act that allowed congressional aides who lost their jobs in elections to bypass traditional civil service hiring rules and obtain appointments to career jobs in federal agencies.
“There are people that burrow into the government after an administration,” Mr. Spicer said. “This has been going on since the country came to be. Sure, there are people after eight years of Obama that found their way into government, it should be no secret.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, told The Associated Press last week, “Of course the deep state exists. There’s a permanent state of massive bureaucracies that do whatever they want and set up deliberate leaks to attack the president. This is what the deep state does: They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie and then deny that they were behind the lie.”
It’s not clear how many former Obama officials are still working in the federal government. Federal auditors found 69 Obama political appointees who moved into career jobs from 2010 to 2015. At the CIA, a source of early irritation for Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama’s four political appointees have departed.
As far as political preferences among federal employees, about 95 percent of political contributions from the federal workforce went to Democrat Hillary Clinton during the presidential race, according to an analysis by The Hill newspaper last fall.
At the Justice Department, acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates ordered her agency not to enforce Mr. Trump’s immigration order in late January, saying she wasn’t convinced it was lawful. Mr. Trump fired her.
The federal judiciary, too, has been thwarting Mr. Trump’s early moves. Federal Judge James Robart, a Bush appointee, blocked the administration’s initial immigration order from taking effect. District Judge Derrick Watson, an Obama appointee, blocked the president’s revised travel order.
“I do think the judges who issued these opinions have ‘reached’ in order to achieve this result,” said Mr. Malcolm, a former Justice Department official. “I would characterize those decisions as activist. There are judges on both sides of the political aisle who occasionally let their policy preferences cloud their judgment, and they will reach to achieve a policy result that they like by interpreting the law in ways that I don’t believe to be reasonable. I think that is happening here with some of the judges.”
In another feud with the administrative state — over the federal budget — Mr. Trump is getting only his first taste of the power of entrenched resistance. As President Reagan once said, “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, former Bush administration national security adviser Stephen Hadley and former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright urged lawmakers to reject Mr. Trump’s “dangerous” proposed cuts in international aid through the State Department.
“We strongly believe that it would be a mistake to increase defense spending at the expense of other critical investments in national security — especially those in diplomacy, development, democracy, and peace-building,” they said in written testimony. “This administration first needs to take the time to staff the departments and agencies, and to develop a national security strategy.”
Illustrating the pervasive influence of the federal government in the Washington region, a reporter asked White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney last week whether the administration was worried that its proposed reduction in the federal workforce — the largest since World War II — would reduce property values in the region.
“I work for the president of the United States,” Mr. Mulvaney told the reporter. “He represents the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland, but he also represents the rest of the country. And I can assure you that we did not write this budget with an eye towards what it would do to the value of your condo.”