WASHINGTON – Two years ago President Donald Trump shared a version of his foreign policy philosophy with a Fox News interviewer who asked about widespread vacancies at the State Department.
“I’m the only one that matters,” the president said.
Dozens of hours of impeachment testimony over the last two months have revealed the true import of Trump’s boast. When he first took office, most assumed the new president would adapt, perhaps against his will, to the ways of Washington, its bureaucratic processes and legions of subject matter experts.
Instead the president has turned the U.S. government into a version of the Trump Organization, full of wheeler-dealers inside and outside the official ranks who exist to do his political bidding. In this version of Trump’s Washington, the rogue actors are the real players and the traditional, professional class in the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon are largely irrelevant.
This lesson was driven home last week for Fiona Hill, Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Europe, as she watched the impeachment hearings and prepared for her public testimony.
Hill had labored in the White House for more than two years but said she didn’t fully grasp how the Trump administration actually operated until she watched Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor turned diplomat, testify before Congress last week.
In the White House, Hill had seen Sondland as an impulsive neophyte overseeing an off-the-books campaign to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that would be politically beneficial to Trump.
Sondland’s testimony showed something else. As Hill watched, it dawned on her that Sondland was running a different policy channel that didn’t include her and was working, at Trump’s behest, toward a very different goal.
“I realized that I wasn’t really being fair to Ambassador Sondland,” she testified. “He was carrying out what he thought he had been instructed to carry out.”
He was the true actor; she was the outlier.
Hill’s epiphany, which she shared with lawmakers, drew a rebuke from Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who, like Trump, had come to view the country’s civil servants as unelected, insidious bureaucrats working to thwart the president’s will.
The president, Nunes suggested, had turned to Sondland because the experts in his government had dismissed as conspiracy theory his real concerns about Ukrainian meddling on behalf of the Democrats in the 2016 election.
“I understand that people at the NSC and people at the State Department had issues with that,” Nunes said. “But at the end of the day, isn’t it the commander in chief who makes those decisions?”
Hill replied she’d been given a directive by her boss to stay out of domestic politics.
The terse exchange revealed the intense pressure that Trump’s style of governing has put on U.S. institutions and civil servants struggling to make policy across the federal government. From the moment he took office Trump has shown little interest in working the traditional levers of state, which he views as slow, cumbersome and untrustworthy.
During the first two years of his presidency, Trump’s top advisers tried to keep people carrying right-wing conspiracy theories and other poorly sourced documents out of the Oval Office.
“In the beginning there were all of these free radicals running around the White House, and none of us had any idea what their jobs were, but they injected chaos and strange ideas into the policy process,” said a former White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid thoughts. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and former White House chief of staff John Kelly waged campaigns to “root them out,” the official said, “but really they and their influence just went underground.”
Today, the focus in the White House is on weeding out the civil servants and diplomats called before Congress.
Trump’s national security advisers, meanwhile, have struggled and largely failed to adapt to his unusual approach to governing. McMaster, who was fired by Trump in 2018, sought to leverage the foreign policy bureaucracy’s expertise on behalf of a president with virtually no national security experience.
He convened frequent meetings of government experts from the CIA, State Department and Pentagon that Trump had little time for and drafted detailed decision memos that Trump never bothered to read.
John Bolton, McMaster’s successor as national security adviser, opted for a more personal approach, jettisoning briefings by specialists in favor of informal one-on-one meetings.
Now, a House vote to impeach Trump seems all but inevitable. And while it is unlikely that the Senate will vote to convict him and remove him from office, the prospect of an angry and mistrustful Trump alarms old Washington.
“Unfortunately, the impeachment will make the president hellbent on the destruction of the civil service if he wins a second term,” said one former State Department official who spent two years serving in the Trump White House. “It’s terrifying.”