Is President Trump being undermined by a “Deep State” eager to leak damaging information about him?
The president’s allies, both within the White House and in friendly media outlets, say the answer is yes. Trump himself has complained repeatedly that he is being victimized by underhanded leaks.
To Trump’s critics, the talk of a deep state amounts to a conspiracy theory that has been pushed toward the mainstream from the wildest corners of right-wing media.
In their telling, the leakers have done the nation a vital service, shining a light onto previously secret communications between Russia and close Trump associates such as Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner.
The nexus of Russia, leaks, the intelligence services and the deep state will come to the fore again this week, with fired FBI director James Comey scheduled to testify before Congress — unless he is blocked at the last minute by the White House invoking executive privilege.
Beyond the partisan arguments, the question of whether a deep state exists — and whether the leaks about Trump are justified — divides intelligence experts, including those who have served in leading agencies.
Gene Coyle, who worked for the CIA for 30 years before becoming a lecturer at Indiana University Bloomington, was skeptical of the concept of a deep state, in the sense of hordes of government officials working in concert in the shadows.
But he said that the Trump administration has legitimate grounds for complaint about the number of leaks.
“If you are that appalled at the actions of an administration, you should quit, hold a press conference and publicly state your objections,” said Coyle, a former field operations officer. “You can’t run an executive branch if more and more people think, ‘I don’t like the policies of this president, therefore I will leak information to make him look bad.’ ”
Coyle also suggested that leakers were working hand-in-hand with news organizations that are too credulous about any kind of anti-Trump information.
That idea finds wide currency in the president’s orbit.
David Bossie, who served as deputy campaign manager for Trump last year, told The Hill via email: "Call it what you want — leaks, deep state, or the permanent bureaucracy — it is dangerous for government employees to engage in activities that undermine a sitting president. This issue must be addressed immediately and in a bipartisan manner."
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has reportedly propounded on the existence of a deep state working to delegitimize the president. Breitbart News, where Bannon served as executive chairman before going to work full-time for Trump, has invoked the idea repeatedly.
One result has been an increased public familiarity with this terminology. Referring to phrase "the deep state" itself, focus group expert Frank Luntz told The Hill: "Yes, Trump voters do mention it. And that tells me that they are watching cable news and conservative talk radio. That phrase was not part of our lexicon until the election, but it's been repeated often since then."
At times the idea of an intelligence community striking back against the president has even reached across party lines.
In January, before Trump had even been inaugurated, Sen Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), now the Senate minority leader, said the president-elect was “being really dumb” to criticize the intelligence community.
“Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you,” Schumer told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Schumer’s argument that the intelligence community would work to take vengeance on an elected president — and the lack of disquiet he or other Democrats expressed at such a prospect — was a sign of the times.
Skepticism of the intelligence community has historically been more prevalent on the left than on the right. But that dynamic has reversed as classified information damaging to Trump has come to light.
“Everything is viewed through partisan lenses — it is ironic but it doesn't surprise me,” said Ronald Kessler, a journalist and author who has written extensively about the intelligence services. “The Republicans do the same thing: When they liked what Comey was doing, they thought he was great. When they didn’t like what he was doing, they thought he was bad.”
Kessler was also among those who argue the terminology of the deep state is excessively conspiratorial — even if he takes a dim view of the leaks themselves.
“I don’t seen any point in calling it the deep state,” he said. “Obviously there are a lot of people in the government who hate Trump. … I don’t think it’s very mysterious.”
Others see not nefarious leakers working against an elected president, but people doing their patriotic duty to get information to the public.
“Leaks happen because the machinery of government is broken, and they come from people who — if I’m talking about the CIA or FBI or other members of the intelligence community — know of what they speak, and are outraged by the conduct of a president,” said Tim Weiner, the author of an award-winning history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of a leak came when The Washington Post learned that Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kisylak, during the transition period. The information led to Flynn’s firing after the shortest-ever tenure as national security advisor.
Defenders of leaks point to other examples too, such as the revelation that Trump disclosed classified information during an Oval Office meeting last month with Kislyak and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
“Team Trump keeps shooting itself every day,” Weiner said. “Trump himself disclosed classified information to the Russians, unilaterally! He burned one of our oldest intelligence partners since the Cold War, which is the State of Israel and its intelligence services. Now, that’s a leak. You are giving a strategic enemy the most highly classified information from a strategic ally? That’s extraordinary!”
Malcolm Nance, a retired naval intelligence officer and the author of The Plot to Hack America, a book about Russian meddling in last year’s election, contended that talk of the deep state is absurd.
“What people want to do is take this crazy conspiracy theory… and use it as a bludgeon against the people,” Nance, who is also an MSNBC contributor, said.
Nance also argued that the leaks themselves were much more likely to be coming from Capitol Hill — in particular congressional staffers who received classified briefings — rather than the intelligence agencies.
“The probability that it is leaking from the CIA is approximately zero,” he said. “The probability that it is leaking from a staffer who has clearance is much higher.”
Others are not so sure. But where they stand on the merits of the leaks seems to largely rest on what they think of Trump’s conduct.
Coyle, the former CIA officer, said he was “appalled” at the number of leaks.
“Sadly, the point we have reached now is that people simply don’t agree with the policy of the White House, and therefore they think that entitles them to try to change it by leaking information,” he added.
Bossie, the former Trump deputy campaign manager, cast the leakers' efforts as a backlash against Trump's election as an agent of change.
"President Trump is an outsider trying to drain the swamp," he said. "He is taking on the permanent class entrenched in our government in Washington — now they are fighting back and harming America in the process. They need to be held to account. Leakers of national security information must be prosecuted."
But Weiner asserted that some of Trump’s behavior, including his firing of Comey, amounted to obstruction of justice. He said he saw “stark and clear” parallels between Trump’s current troubles and Watergate — the latter example being one where he viewed the intelligence community as acting properly to preserve the rule of law.
“With all due respect to Woodward and Bernstein,” he said, “it was the FBI that brought Nixon down.”