So, is there a deep state, though one with a more neutral name and less cabalistic motives than the conspiracy theorists portray?
Much of the book charts the history of congressional oversight over the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., beginning, in 1975, with the committee chaired by Senator Frank Church. Its hearings and subsequent report unveiled a long and gruesome string of assassinations, wiretaps and assorted skulduggery — after which Congress passed laws restricting these practices. Rohde appraises subsequent presidents, after Richard Nixon, by how faithfully they held to these Church-era reforms.
He seems to suggest, though he never outright claims, that the reforms muzzled what at least used to be a deep state. However, as countless books have documented, the C.I.A., far from being a “rogue elephant” (as Church described it), was, for the most part, executing the top-secret orders of the presidents it served. For instance, Operation Mongoose, the C.I.A.’s bungled plot to kill Fidel Castro, was authorized by President John Kennedy and run by his brother Robert, the attorney general — a fact that Church played down and Rohde doesn’t mention.
Some of the book’s most fascinating passages trace the rise of William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, from his time as a C.I.A. intern to clerking for a federal judge who ruled that Nixon had no obligation to turn over the White House tapes (a position that the Supreme Court would overrule unanimously), to serving as a legal assistant in Ronald Reagan’s White House — all of which hardened his commitment to a doctrine of presidential power and downgrading the role of Congress. Rohde highlights Barr’s activism, along with a small group of other conservative lawyers, in the Federalist Society and the Catholic Information Center, which now exercise enormous influence. (The five conservative Supreme Court justices have all been members of the Federalist Society, whose recommendations have also shaped Trump’s selections of lower-court judges.)
The tale of these groups is worth an entire book. But are they part of a new “deep state”? Rohde declares that they are, tossing in Trump’s relationship with Rudy Giuliani and Sean Hannity to boot. At the end of the book, he concludes, “Trump is creating a parallel, shadow government filled with like-minded loyalists, without transparency, democratic norms or public processes — a ‘deep state’ of its own.” It’s a clever punchline, but it’s wrong. Trump and his team are the opposite of a deep state. They’re operating in the open, running the top layer of the executive branch while decimating and dissing the denizens of the permanent bureaucracy in order to accomplish, as Bannon once put it, “the destruction of the administrative state.” And, unlike a deep state (whether mythological or real), after Trump leaves office they’ll be swept away.