Alex Wong/Getty ImagesRobert Mueller, James Clapper, John Brennan, Michael Flynn, and Philip Goldberg at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Washington, D.C., March 2013


To Donald Trump it seems as though the “Deep State” has arisen from the depths of the dismal swamp of Washington to torment him. He sees a cabal of his political enemies—foremost the men who have led the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency—as a cryptocracy operating under the cover of the constitutionally established government, an immense conspiracy, a dark force seeking to destroy him. The president awakens to tweet thunderbolts against it before Fox Friends signs on at dawn. (To wit: May 23, 2018, 6:54 *

I believe that whoever backhanded the information on the intelligence intercepts to the Times and the Post was more savior than saboteur; there are more virtuous leaks than vicious ones. Goldsmith, a formidable voice in national security affairs and a staunch conservative critic of Trump, thinks that the Deep State is real and that it did dirty work here. I think not. Yet the fear of a Deep State has a long history.


None “shall presume henceforth to meddle with anything concerning our government or deep matters of state,” King James I of Great Britain once warned the Speaker of the House of Commons. “We see all governments are obscure and invisible,” one of the king’s subjects, the philosopher Francis Bacon, wrote in 1605. The power of the state was “a part of knowledge…deemed secret.” It flowed from the divine right of kings, and the people dared not question it.

The American Revolution sought to overthrow this notion. Though the Framers allowed for secrecy in military and diplomatic affairs, they never could have imagined an American empire that would eclipse the British, or an immense peacetime army, or the armaments industry to support it. President Eisenhower warned that the military-industrial complex threatened “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” whose “total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”

The nexus of political and economic power unchecked by democracy was a force that President Theodore Roosevelt saw as the dynamo of a deep state. In his Progressive Party platform of 1912, he warned: “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.” He was talking about the plutocrats, the men whom he called the malefactors of great wealth, who bought the votes of senators and congressmen. “The unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics,” as TR called it, lives and thrives today: this manifestation of a deep state is led by the Koch brothers, who have made the careers of men like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the disgraced and departed EPA chief Scott Pruitt, along with many of the most reactionary members of Congress.

Roosevelt created the FBI in 1908 with the intent of using it to attack the invisible government of dark money. He died shortly before the rise of Hoover, who took over the bureau in 1924 and ran it for forty-eight years. The cold war made Hoover the emperor of secrets. He ruled by fear. He operated outside the law and beyond the boundaries of the Constitution, wiretapping, bugging, and burglarizing, unfettered by warrants. The CIA, created in 1947, and the NSA, created in 1952, worked in an uneasy alliance with Hoover’s FBI—uneasy because he spied on them too. Hoover took a seat on President Eisenhower’s National Security Council, alongside the secretaries of state and defense. He shaped the government’s policies on everything from national security to civil rights.

When President Kennedy took office, Hoover had a salacious file on him—including a wiretap transcript of a 1942 tryst with a woman suspected of being a Nazi spy—and he made sure JFK knew about it. The attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, thought Hoover was a “dangerous” man who ran “a very dangerous organization”—a danger he believed could be controlled. But Hoover wasn’t taking any orders from Bobby Kennedy, or the United States Congress, or the Supreme Court. The attorney general bowed to Hoover’s will in deep matters of state, including the around-the-clock wiretapping and bugging of Martin Luther King.

In the 1960s and the early 1970s, Presidents Johnson and Nixon ordered the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA to disrupt or dismantle the antiwar movement. As the war in Vietnam turned worse and worse, they pressed the intelligence agencies harder and harder to find the (nonexistent) secret sources of support that Moscow and Beijing supplied to the American left. LBJ tried his hardest to create a secret police. On his orders, liberal-minded men like Attorney General Ramsey Clark and his deputy Warren Christopher, later Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, commanded the FBI, the NSA, and the army to spy on at least 100,000 American citizens; the CIA coordinated with the NSA to place thousands more on an electronic-eavesdropping watchlist. (At that time, Clapper was an Air Force captain working signals intelligence at the NSA.)

President Nixon sought to redouble the illegal surveillance effort mounted by his predecessor, ordering Hoover to wiretap members of the National Security Council staff and the Washington press corps. Under Nixon, the NSA’s watchlist grew to include United States senators: Frank Church, an Idaho Democrat, who would later lead the first congressional investigation of American intelligence, and Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, who would ask the famous question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” That query came a year after Nixon’s bumbling burglary squad, led by washed-up FBI and CIA men, got caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972. Neither the FBI nor the CIA could protect the president then. Hoover was six weeks in the grave. And the CIA wouldn’t take the fall for the break-in. Nixon was doomed.

I was seventeen years old in the halcyon summer of 1973, transfixed by the televised Senate hearings on Watergate that began to destroy the Nixon administration. The senators, working with crucial information obtained by the Washington field office of the FBI, began to put together a picture of a president who had broken the law and bent the Constitution to its breaking point. When the special prosecutor charged the leading defendants the following year, Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The denouement came in August 1974, after eight essential White House tapes were released upon an 8–0 ruling by the Supreme Court. They revealed that Nixon had sought to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in six days after it happened.

After Watergate, Senator Church’s inquiry revealed a long series of abuses by the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. He famously proclaimed that the CIA—and by implication all of American intelligence—had been “a rogue elephant” rampaging out of control. This missed the most salient and disturbing point in a till-then hidden history. It took years to begin to understand a hard fact: with very few exceptions, the lords of national security were carrying out orders from the White House. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had secretly authorized Hoover to carry out warrantless surveillance in defiance of a clear ruling by the Supreme Court back in 1940, and Hoover kept that one-page order in his desk until the day he died. Presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon spurred the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA to spy on Americans and subvert political opponents.

James Comey
James Comey; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

It was presidents, not the intelligence agencies, who had gone rogue. The slow declassification of cold war documents has shown conclusively that secret government in the United States was not controlled by J. Edgar Hoover, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the clandestine service of the CIA. Its headquarters was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A true deep state must have the power to be a puppet master of democratically elected officials—in particular, the president. By this definition, even at the depths of the cold war, the American deep state was a chimera born of secrecy and fear. And yet the fear persists. A corrosive mistrust of the official version of cataclysmic events has made conspiracy theories into mainstream beliefs. Most Americans—the number went as high as 81 percent in 2001, according to a Gallup Poll—have thought the Kennedy assassination was the result of a conspiracy and not a million-to-one shot by a deranged Marine marksman with a mail-order rifle. A clear majority of those polled by The New York Times in the five years after the September 11 attacks said that the government was either lying or “hiding something” about what happened. The belief in a deep state is equally widespread today, albeit with a Trumpian twist. It is not a shadowy substratum, it is the administrative state itself; there is no Justice Department, only “Deep State Justice,” as Trump would have it. This may be a necessary construct of the post-truth politics that have given us a counterfactual conspiracy-theorist-in-chief.


James Comey first encountered Donald Trump in the gilded palace of Trump Tower on January 6, 2017. He (along with Clapper and Brennan) were to deliver their unanimous assessment of the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election: Putin and his agents had succeeded in undermining public faith in the process, defaming Hillary Clinton, and boosting their chosen candidate. The goal was to disrupt American democracy—and what could have been more disruptive than electing Donald Trump?

Everything about Trump’s presidency turns on this moment: the decisive determination that a hydra-headed covert operation involving espionage, sabotage, and an Internet-driven campaign of information warfare, commanded by the veteran KGB officer Putin, had helped put him in power. The FBI, using information gathered by the CIA and the NSA, was now duty-bound to investigate whether members of Trump’s team—and conceivably Trump himself—had aided and abetted the Russian effort. This gave the conspiracy-minded president-elect cause to fear the leaders of American intelligence, and especially Comey. It gave them greater reason to fear his presidency.

The FBI director had drawn a short straw that day. He alone was to brief Trump on the “Steele dossier,” compiled by a veteran British spy well known to the FBI, which included the allegation that the president-elect had engaged in unusual sexual practices with prostitutes in Moscow, and that Russian spies had compromising evidence of this. Comey writes in A Higher Loyalty that he thought Trump might “assume I was dangling the prostitute thing over him to jam him, to gain leverage. He might well assume that I was pulling a J. Edgar Hoover, because that’s what Hoover would do in my shoes.”

Comey was already the most politically influential FBI director since Hoover. The argument over whether he merely damaged Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016 or destroyed them will continue until the end of time. He now has the power to help seal a criminal case or an article of impeachment against Trump by testifying to the facts in his book: that he was fired, as Trump said in an NBC News interview, over the “Russia thing.”

Comey is a “LIAR,” Trump has tweeted. It is possible to read Comey’s book and come away thinking he believes in himself above all. He has a soaring self-regard, and he can be pious, even pompous. But it is hard to think he’s not telling the truth about his encounters with Trump. When he sits down with the president, he tells us, he has flashbacks of his days as a mob prosecutor: “I thought of New York Mafia social clubs…. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, great and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.” These sentences ring true, and Comey is in a unique position to write them.

The confrontations memorialized here, especially when Trump says he wants the FBI to drop its criminal investigation of the disgraced Mike Flynn and “lift the cloud” of the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election—and then fires Comey for refusing to put the fix in—are as gripping as any chapter of presidential history has ever been. It’s better than Watergate’s smoking gun tape: the president of the United States was trying to suborn the FBI director in an obstruction of justice. Comey testified about much of this last year, but the added atmospherics in the book are powerful. The image of the president as mob boss is indelible. The stench of criminality hangs in the air of the West Wing like cordite.

If we see another season when high crimes are charged against a president, the likeliest count will again be obstruction of justice, again regarding a break-in at Democratic headquarters, again with the FBI working—this time with Mueller as chief investigator and Comey as his star witness—to bring the president to justice. The power of secret information gathered by American intelligence and made public in Congress or a court of law may be his downfall. We may then see proof that what afflicts us is not a deep state but a shallow and corrupted government.

—July 18, 2018

  1. *

    “Paradoxes of the Deep State,” in Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein (HarperCollins, 2018). ↩

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