What we are seeing in the Ukraine saga is neither the work of an unaccountable “deep state” seeking to undermine the elected president, nor the work of a benevolent resistance movement of career civil servants seeking to save us from him. In fact, while Trump has faced pushback from all levels of the executive branch since the start of his administration, the most dramatic examples have come from his chosen political appointees. And the kinds of actions we do see career bureaucrats taking that create hurdles for the White House are not the result of some organized cabal of vigilantes but, rather, the bread and butter of normal bureaucratic process. Asking questions, taking notes, raising concerns, looping in the lawyers: Those actors in this saga who cut their teeth on the norms of the career bureaucracy are not the ones who sought to create a shadow foreign policy agenda at odds with the elected government and the law.
Resistance and conflict within the executive branch are hardly unique to this administration, and they do not take place along some crisp divide between civil servants and political actors. The spectrum of actors embroiled in the Ukraine saga is illustrative of the range within — from the career Foreign Service officer or the line prosecutor who expects to serve at a remove from partisanship, to the career military officer detailed to the White House, to the appointed chargé d’affaires to Ukraine who returns from retirement after a lifetime of government service to serve under this president when asked by the secretary of state, to the Trump-appointed inspectors general, to the repeat political appointee who quits when he cannot get his way, to the businessman-turned-E.U.-ambassador, to the president’s closest political advisers in the White House, at the far other end from the protected civil and foreign services. Under normal circumstances, the attorney general would fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum — a political appointee but with an expectation of independence from the White House and from general partisan hackery over prosecutorial decisions. (How quaint.)
Most, and quite possibly all, of these actors — and others — have engaged in some form of resistance toward the president’s real or perceived policies. We know that some of these officials, such as William B. Taylor Jr. — a Trump appointee but also a career diplomat and military veteran who had served under both Republican and Democratic presidents — raised concerns when he became aware of the threat to condition aid to Ukraine on a political favor for Trump. He sent texts with statements like, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” He documented his conversations.
We know that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s senior adviser Michael McKinley, whom Pompeo brought on to his staff from a long career in the Foreign Service, repeatedly raised concerns with his boss about how Trump pushed Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch out for political reasons.
We know that a whistleblower within the intelligence community documented the concerns of his colleagues regarding the president’s exploiting of U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine for political favors and sought to disclose his findings first to government lawyers, where his report stalled, and then to Congress, per a statutory process.
And we have testimony that other repeat government players, such as political appointees John Bolton and Fiona Hill, raised concerns internally, including with a government lawyer, about the shadow foreign policy being run by Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, and others. Reports even suggest that Bolton played a role in the State Department releasing the hold on the congressionally allocated aid to Ukraine, possibly without the president’s go-ahead.
Of each of these actions, the one reportedly taken by Bolton — not a career official but a purely political appointee — in releasing the aid is the boldest. But none is the stuff of military coups.
Only one of these accounts involved an attempt to disclose information to Congress. In fact, if the whistleblower had left the matter with government lawyers and never sought to lodge his complaint, it is unclear whether a single one of these other actors would have sought to disclose the attempted extortion that was underway, with taxpayer dollars, and in our name. This entire tumbling forth of information the public now has about Trump’s attempts to trade our nation’s foreign policy for personal favors may rest on that one individual domino having decided to take that initial step.
Despite the high stakes, the high drama of impeachment, the high-flown “deep state” rhetoric of the president and his surrogates — not to mention the high crimes — what we see in the career public servant piece of this saga is simply the regular workings of an institutional bureaucracy, as I have explored in greater detail in my scholarship. All modern presidents have benefited from the expertise and process of the bureaucracy and yet at times felt their agendas to be frustrated by its constraints. President Barack Obama faced internal hurdles to many of his signature campaign promises, including closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and withdrawing troops from Iraq. And for Obama, too, the most significant policy pushback came from his appointed advisers, such as his secretaries of defense. Career officials, for their part, often create what I have called “neutral friction” — they may continue the work they did under a prior administration unless directed otherwise; they will insist on following rules and procedures; they will resist efforts to change factual analysis. These normal bureaucratic actions may result in constraints on implementing a president’s agenda, but that does not make them the efforts of either a #Resistance or a “deep state.”
And we should be grateful that they are not. The very traits that we value in career bureaucrats and are watching play out in the Ukraine saga — slow and deliberate decision-making, avoidance of partisanship, norms against leaks, insistence on following process and the law, aversion to making splashy headlines — are those that tend to keep career bureaucrats from seeking or controlling the reins of power themselves.
But this also means that the career bureaucracy alone cannot be our only check on a tyrannical president.
Those who are looking for bureaucrats to swoop in and save us today may take some lessons from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into 2016 election interference and how it ended. Over the two-year course of that investigation, political actors abdicated their own responsibility to oversee and check the president in the mistaken belief that Mueller would do the job for them. Those who were surprised to see a bureaucrat rather than a firebrand show up to testify on Capitol Hill clearly misunderstood Mueller’s constitution and how he understood his mandate. There are, of course, exceptions to this general characterization of career bureaucrats. But all examples we have seen of actors directly contravening the president’s stated policies involve political appointees Trump tapped himself, not the faceless, supposed “deep state” bureaucracy.
And what have these career bureaucrats done? In the Ukraine case, some career officials questioned actions they believed to be unlawful abuses of power. Some reportedly raised their concerns internally with lawyers. On exceedingly rare occasions, some sought a lawful means to disclose evidence of wrongdoing to Congress. Those who testify will be able to provide us with facts, and context, and they may even help us understand what actions are outside the norms of long-standing government process. But they cannot and will not steer the ship themselves. And despite the questions House members asked in Wednesday’s hearings, they cannot and will not be the ones to make the normative case for impeachment or against it. We cannot ask that of them or expect it. That is ultimately a political act and, therefore, beyond the nature of these career public servants for the same reason that we see them balking at norm-breaking and abuses of power. These officials who have spent their entire careers serving the public have done their jobs. Now, it is up to Congress, and us.