If given a choice, many of us would rather visit the dentist than spend hours revisiting the ins and outs of the F.B.I.’s recent investigations into President Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet in the hands of award-winning journalist James B. Stewart, a review of these investigations becomes exciting and informative, even when it covers what we already know. In Deep State, Stewart raises, and then systematically demolishes, claims by President Trump that a secret, powerful group of federal employees is working to unjustly bring down his presidency. Deep State is a compelling read, particularly today as President Trump has responded to the Ukraine impeachment inquiry in part with new allegations of Deep State resistance.
Although Stewart dissects the Deep State allegations made by President Trump, his focus is primarily on the F.B.I. Stewart minutely details the actions taken by the F.B.I. long before Trump’s election, including the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and the now-infamous romance between F.B.I. employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page as played out in text messages that mixed ardor with anti-Trump sentiments.
From Turkey to Conspiracy
The term “Deep State,” according to Stewart, took root in Turkey in the 1990s to describe “bureaucratic resistance” within the government. Beginning in 2014, the idea of a Deep State resistance movement gained traction with conservative media commentators, and was later embraced by President Trump. In detailing the many ways in which Trump argues that a Deep State is out to get him, Stewart explains one of the main tools in Trump’s toolbox: attacking the credibility of those who disagree with or challenge him. The effort by the president to discredit the F.B.I. as part of a Deep State conspiracy stands as Exhibit A in his effort to discredit all American institutions, and the individuals within those institutions who do not bend to his will.
In reviewing the conduct of the F.B.I. officials who were allegedly part of this Deep State conspiracy, including then F.B.I. director James Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe, Stewart chronicles what happened inside the rooms where crucial decisions were made: whether Comey should discuss the Clinton e-mail investigation publicly; whether he should publicly report the reopening of the Clinton investigation days before the election; whether potentially public acts in the investigation into the Clinton Foundation should be placed on hold until after the election; whether to open an investigation into Russian election interference; and, most importantly, whether to open an investigation into the sitting president of the United States.
One of President Trump’s main tools: attacking the credibility of those who challenge him.
As Stewart takes the reader through decisions made by F.B.I. leadership, he shows time and again that none of these individuals was part of a vast conspiracy aimed at removing a democratically elected president from office. Stewart portrays the leadership of the F.B.I. as driven by service, integrity, and loyalty to country. His portrayal is not all roses—from Comey’s decision to discard years of precedent and policy keeping the F.B.I. out of elections, to McCabe’s lack of candor regarding a leak to The Wall Street Journal, there is ample room for criticism. But there is no evidence that these errors are motivated by animus toward the 45th president. Or by a desire to undo the democratic will of the American people. Rather, the errors that Stewart portrays are driven by more common, human faults. Faults such as ego, concerns for personal reputation and family, a failure to honor long-standing Department of Justice policies, and, perhaps most critically, a failure to understand Trump himself. The F.B.I. officials that Stewart describes failed to see, until it was too late, that the president had declared war on them, and on the F.B.I. itself.
At the Ready
Toward the end of Deep State, Stewart explains that Trump used the phrase “Deep State” for the first time in early 2018, referring to the “Deep State Justice Dept” in a Tweet. Stewart acknowledges that “Trump is hardly the first president to face resistance from, and to express hostility toward, elements of the federal bureaucracy,” but argues that Trump is the first to weaponize the idea of a Deep State conspiracy to discredit American institutions such as the F.B.I.
There are advantages to the way Stewart has organized the book, using Trump’s claim of a Deep State conspiracy as the organizing framework for his analysis of the president’s actions. It presents a central theme around which it tells the story of F.B.I. investigations into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, the Clinton Foundation, Russian election interference, and obstruction of justice by the president. This framework sets up a clear question: Was the F.B.I. leading a vast, Deep State conspiracy to bring down the Trump presidency, or were the actions of the F.B.I. justified?
Trump is the first to weaponize the idea of a Deep State conspiracy to discredit American institutions.
Stewart’s approach, however, raises a different and more significant question: Is a review of allegations of a Deep State conspiracy within the F.B.I. the best lens through which to evaluate the Trump presidency? It is often said in politics that the person who frames the issue wins the day. Trump has done just that with his Deep State conspiracy. By reviewing the actions of the F.B.I. in this context, Stewart plays on Trump’s field, and accepts Trump’s framing of the issue. A good lawyer will tell you that when you are defending, you are losing. Here, Stewart plays defense. He investigates, and ultimately defends, the actions of the F.B.I.
The president, as Stewart points out at different points in Deep State, doesn’t want public servants of integrity following the facts and law where it leads. He wants his own people, who will protect him. Alleging a Deep State conspiracy is one way the president forces men and women in government to go on the defense. Whether the allegations are true or false may not matter, since the allegations themselves sully our institutions and send a clear message to government employees that the president wants them to fall in line.
Stewart’s debunking of the Deep State conspiracy theory may not be the perfect angle from which to review the Trump presidency. But with Congress investigating allegations that the president abused his power to push foreign leaders to investigate his leading political rival, it’s worth remembering the ways in which President Trump works to undercut those who speak and act against him, whether it be the employees at the F.B.I. or the C.I.A.
Anne Milgram is a professor at New York University School of Law and co-hosts the popular Cafe Insider podcast along with Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York