Donald Trump waits to step out onto the portico of the U.S. Capitol for his inauguration in January. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
Leaks to reporters. Supposed wiretaps of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign. Federal court rulings against the ban on travel and refugee resettlement.
For allies of Trump — aides, politicians and right-wing news sites — these are evidence of the existence of a “deep state,” a secretive, coordinated network inside the government dedicated to undermining the administration.
Asked by reporters recently whether the deep state exists, Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, offered this observation: “I don’t think it should come as any surprise that there are people burrowed into government during eight years of the last administration and may have believed in that agenda and want to continue to seek it.”
But whether it goes beyond that is a topic of debate. Here’s some background on the deep state:
For starters, what does the term mean?
The Oxford dictionary defines a “deep state” like this: “A body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy.”
Where are the origins of the deep state?
After the Ottoman Empire fell and Kemal Ataturk became the first leader of modern Turkey, he installed loyalists to uphold his ideal of secular nationalism.
They became known as derin devlet — deep state.
The idea has persisted to this day, with the Turkish military playing a key role in protecting Ataturk’s founding principles and intervening when governments try to challenge them.
“In Turkey, it’s an alleged coalition of military officers, intelligence operatives, organized crime figures, journalists, academics and business people,” said Steven A. Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Turkish politics. “The ‘deep state’ is taken as a fact in Turkey, though no one has ever provided hard evidence of its existence.”
But to many Turks, it is plain to see. Since 1960, the military has seized power in Turkey four times to guard the values of the Turkish republic, experts say.
To the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom critics accuse of eroding the country’s secular traditions, last year’s failed coup was the work of the deep state.
Does this notion exist in other countries?
In Pakistan, citizens often accuse the powerful Inter-Service Intelligence agency of controlling the country’s deep state.
And in Egypt, many blame a deep state dominated by the military for the 2013 coup against Mohamed Morsi. Morsi was elected after the 2011 ousting of Hosni Mubarak, who had held office for 30 years and was known for having ties to the deep state.
What have Trump’s allies said about a deep state?
Quite a lot, actually.
Breitbart News, which Trump senior advisor Stephen K. Bannon once oversaw, has published several pieces in recent weeks alleging that a deep state exists in America.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter throughout last year’s presidential campaign, told the Associated Press recently that a deep state definitely exists.
“There’s a permanent state of massive bureaucracies that do whatever they want and set up deliberate leaks to attack the president,” he said. “This is what the deep state does: They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie and then deny they were behind the lie.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity, a friend of Trump, opened a show recently by claiming there are “deep-state Obama holdovers embedded like barnacles in the federal bureaucracy … hell-bent on destroying President Trump.”
So, is there actually a deep state in America?
“What the current administration believes to be the American deep state seems to be little more than the time-honored practice of leaking information to journalists in Washington,” Cook said.
There may be more leaks now “because there are a lot of civil servants who apparently disagree with this administration,” he said. “There is no evidence of a cabal intent on overthrowing the administration.”
Trump’s recent setbacks are not an orchestrated attempt to overthrow him, but a natural part of government’s checks and balances, experts say.
In other cases, Trump himself appears to have created the evidence used to propagate the idea of a deep state.
He alleged that President Obama had tapped his phones inside Trump Tower, a claim rejected by a bipartisan Senate intelligence panel and a variety of other officials.
Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says the pushback against Trump from within the government does not seem like a coordinated effort.
“Yes, there is some institutional resistance to the Trump presidency,” Brown said. “But applying the concept of a deep state seems to be based more on paranoia than on political reality.”
And yet conservatives aren’t the only ones alleging there’s a deep state.
In early January, when a dossier emerged suggesting that Russian officials had compromising information about Trump, investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald tied it to the deep state.
The document was produced by Trump opponents, and nearly all of its contents remain unsubstantiated.
“The Deep State unleashed its tawdriest and most aggressive assault yet on Trump: vesting credibility in and then causing the public disclosure of a completely unvetted and unverified document,” Greenwald wrote.
Democrats had “openly embraced and celebrated what was, so plainly, an attempt by the Deep State to sabotage an elected official who had defied it: ironically, its own form of blackmail,” he wrote.
Have past administrations talked about a deep state?
Not in the same way as the Trump administration, but some have offered hints.
In his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower famously warned about the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex,” a term that he never clearly defined but that conspiracy theorists latched onto.
Deep-state conspiracies emerged about the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, but they have been largely debunked.
And some allies to President Nixon — who resigned in August 1974 because of the Watergate scandal — alluded to the deep state as the root of his downfall. Nixon, like Trump, had a fractious relationship with the press, calling it “the enemy.”
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