WASHINGTON — Nameless, faceless and voiceless, the C.I.A. officer who first triggered the greatest threat to President Trump’s tenure in office seemed to be practically the embodiment of the “deep state” that the president has long accused of trying to take him down.
But over the last three weeks, the deep state has emerged from the shadows in the form of real live government officials, past and present, who have defied a White House attempt to block cooperation with House impeachment investigators and provided evidence that largely backs up the still-anonymous whistle-blower.
The parade of witnesses marching to Capitol Hill culminated this week with the dramatic testimony of William B. Taylor Jr., a military officer and diplomat who has served his country for 50 years. Undaunted by White House pressure, he came forward to accuse the same president who sent him to Ukraine a few months ago of abusing his power to advance his own political interests.
The House impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’s efforts to force Ukraine to investigate Democrats is the climax of a 33-month scorched-earth struggle between a president with no record of public service and the government he inherited but never trusted. If Mr. Trump is impeached by the House, it will be in part because of some of the same career professionals he has derided as “absolute scum” or compared to Nazis.
“With all the denigration and disparagement and diminishment, I think you are seeing some payback here, not by design but by opportunity,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat from Washington’s Virginia suburbs who represents many federal employees. “It’s almost karmic justice. All of a sudden, there’s an opportunity for people who know things to speak out, speak up, testify about and against — and they’re doing so.”
Current and former officials like Marie L. Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill and George P. Kent told House investigators how the government was circumvented by a rogue foreign policy operation on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Michael McKinley, a four-time ambassador and senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, described resigning after four decades at the State Department over the treatment of the career foreign service.
Even the original Anonymous is back, the unidentified author of a much-discussed essay in The New York Times last year claiming that officials within Mr. Trump’s administration were working “to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” The writer, still unnamed, plans to publish a book next month called “A Warning.”
The witnesses heading to Capitol Hill do not consider themselves part of any nefarious deep state, but simply public servants who have loyally worked for administrations of both parties only to be denigrated, sidelined or forced out of jobs by a president who marinates in suspicion and conspiracy theories.
But it is also true that some career officials, alarmed at what they saw inside the corridors of government agencies, have sought ways to thwart Mr. Trump’s aims by slow-walking his orders, keeping information from him, leaking to reporters or enlisting allies in Congress to intervene.
And so what is “karmic justice” for the career establishment feels like validation to Mr. Trump and his circle that they were right all along.
“What you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying: ‘You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt that they’re undertaking on the Hill,’” Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told reporters last week.
Mr. Trump has lashed out angrily in recent days, implicitly threatening retribution. At a campaign rally in Dallas last week, he demanded four times to know who the original whistle-blower is.
“Is the whistle-blower a spy?” he asked. “We got a lot of bad people out there,” he added, “but one by one, we’re advancing. One by one.”
He did not elaborate, but his administration is moving to weed out career officials at the National Security Council. Robert C. O’Brien, his new national security adviser, plans to pare the council staff by about a third, from 174 policy experts to under 120, by early next year, generally through attrition. He initiated the effort before the whistle-blower complaint became public and frames it as efficiency, but it is seen by some as a way to purge internal “spies.”
The administration has sought all along to minimize the role of career officials. In the foreign service, 45 percent of the 166 ambassadors serving under Mr. Trump are political appointees chosen based on loyalty and campaign contributions, the highest rate in history, according the American Foreign Service Association.
As a result, there has been an exodus from public service. According to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization, the Trump administration lost nearly 1,200 senior career service employees in its first 18 months — roughly 40 percent more than during President Barack Obama’s first 18 months in office.
But now more are speaking out. In a letter to Mr. Pompeo this week, 36 former foreign service officers complained that he had “failed to protect civil servants from political retaliation,” citing in particular Ms. Yovanovitch, who was removed as ambassador to Ukraine after being targeted by Mr. Trump’s allies.
“The politicization of our diplomatic corps and the erosion of the values of our oath of office,” they wrote, “will make us more susceptible to the personal interests of an elite few, at the direct cost of our national security.”
Another letter signed by more than 270 former employees of the United States Agency for International Development said they were angry at the treatment of public servants and “distraught at the dangers inherent in the president’s cavalier (and quite possibly corrupt) approach to making foreign policy on impulse and personal interest rather than in response to national security concerns.”
The notion of a deep state of unelected bureaucrats secretly plotting to control government has a long history but until recently was more associated with foreign countries like Turkey or Egypt. In the United States, it was largely relegated to the political fringe or the subject of Hollywood thrillers.
But other presidents have viewed career officials warily at times. Ronald Reagan regularly derided bureaucrats and they in turn derided him. Bill Clinton fired the White House Travel Office staff fearing it was loyal to his predecessor. George W. Bush grew frustrated that career diplomats disregarded his “freedom agenda” foreign policy. Mr. Obama was convinced that the military leadership tried to box him into decisions he did not want to make.
Still, none of them went to war with the professional staff the way Mr. Trump has, a war fomented in part by far-right media and conspiracy theorists who have gained favor in the Trump era, propelling wild ideas into mainstream conversation. Bookstore shelves are stocked by new volumes with “deep state” in the title. The Epix television thriller “Deep State” refers to a president “who tweets like a teenage girl” being pressured by sinister forces to go to war.
“Washington hasn’t taken the deep state idea seriously; they treat it as a badge of honor or an inside joke,” said John Gans, the author of “White House Warriors,” a history of the National Security Council. “But it is a concern around the country. And one that has been stoked on the right by those who support the president.”
Mr. Trump, the first president never to have served a day in public office or the military, did not use the term deep state at first, but his hostility toward government was strong from the start. He blamed the leak of the so-called Steele dossier of unverified allegations against him on intelligence agencies and never trusted their conclusion that Russia intervened in the 2016 election on his behalf. He bristled at the National Park Service when official photos showed his Inauguration Day crowd was smaller than Mr. Obama’s.
He referred to officials detailed to the White House from agencies around the government as “Obama people.” When transcripts of his telephone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia were leaked, it convinced him that he could not trust the career staff and so records of subsequent calls were stashed away in a classified database — including the rough transcript of his July 25 telephone call with Ukraine’s president that now has him on the verge of being impeached.
It was Stephen K. Bannon, then Mr. Trump’s chief strategist and a veteran of the conspiracy-minded world of alt-right media, who first articulated the war to come, declaring shortly after the inauguration that the administration’s goal would be the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Other aides resisted this mind-set. When Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster became national security adviser, he barred his staff from calling career officials “Obama holdovers” and promoted some of them. Soon enough, Mr. Bannon’s allies waged a campaign against General McMaster through Breitbart News and Twitter.
The search for disloyalty was especially pronounced at the State Department. Diplomats said career officials had largely been cut off from viewing memorandums of conversations written after senior officials talk to foreign leaders, memos traditionally used to help junior officers issue guidance to embassy staff members across the world. (A State Department spokesman denied that access to the memos had been restricted.)
At the American Embassy in Ottawa, tensions were high between the ambassador, Kelly Craft, and the highest-ranking career diplomat. One diplomat described a campaign to uncover evidence of staff disloyalty to the Trump administration. Another cast doubt that it was ordered by Ms. Craft but agreed that there was broad discomfort among career diplomats in Ottawa with Mr. Trump’s foreign policies.
While many career employees have left, some of those who stayed have resisted some of Mr. Trump’s initiatives. After the president canceled large war games with South Korea, the military kept doing them — just at a smaller scale and without talking about them. Fearing that Mr. Trump would blow up a NATO summit, diplomats negotiated an agreement before the forum even began.
When the White House ordered foreign aid frozen this year, agency officials quietly reached out to Congress for help reversing the decision, even drawing up lists of programs that would be starved of funding to help lawmakers pressure the administration. State Department officials similarly enlisted congressional allies to hinder Mr. Trump’s efforts to push through proposed weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and other nations.
State and Defense Department officials likewise tried to undermine the president’s decision to hold up the $391 million in security aid to Ukraine that now has him in trouble, going through back channels to tip off lawmakers. Pentagon lawyers even developed a finding that the aid freeze was illegal, according to a congressional aide, only to be rejected by the White House budget office.
Mr. Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, made clear to House investigators this week that he sought to resist the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political help, which he saw as “crazy” and “improper.” Even as Mr. Trump pushed to have Ukraine’s president go on CNN to publicly pledge to investigate Democrats, Mr. Taylor testified that he quietly advised Ukrainian officials not to do so for fear of getting involved in American domestic politics.
“As we are seeing pure-form Trumpism take over foreign policy, it is bumping up against the reality of professionalism,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official. “Even if there are people who may agree with the policy of the Trump administration, the way the administration and this president goes about doing business is unprofessional, unethical, perhaps illegal. And whatever your policy views, that cuts against what these folks have joined government to do.”
Mr. Trump first embraced the phrase “deep state” in June 2017 when he retweeted a post from Sean Hannity of Fox News and then used it himself for the first time on Twitter in November of that year, according to Bill Frischling of Factba.se, a service that analyzes data on Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Mr. Trump began using the term in speeches and media appearances in August 2018 at a Republican dinner in October, but he has turned to it increasingly as time has passed. He has referred to a deep state 23 times so far this year, twice as often as last year.
At the Young Black Leadership Summit this month, he railed against Democrats and “their deep-state cronies” who are “colluding in their effort to overturn the presidential election.” He brought up the “deep state, whatever you want to call them” again during a trade-pact signing ceremony. At a Louisiana rally, he denounced “the unholy alliance” of Democrats, the media and “deep state bureaucrats.”
In an interview with his former aide Sebastian Gorka, conducted before the impeachment conflict but published in The Daily Caller this month, Mr. Trump described his war with the deep state as fundamental to his presidency.
“If it all works out, I will consider it one of the greatest things I’ve done,” Mr. Trump said. “I think with the destruction of the deep state, certainly I’ve done big damage,” he added. “They’ve come after me in so many different ways; it’s been such a disgrace. But I think it’ll be one of my great achievements.”
That was then. Now he faces the counteroffensive. Mark Zaid, a lawyer for the whistle-blower, said career officials who suffered in silence finally had a voice. “What people are going to learn is this level of dissent has been ongoing almost since Day 1” he said. At first, “it was always a one-off. ‘This diplomat resigned.’ Then the story would disappear three hours later. It never went anywhere.”
“Now,” he added, “these people have a platform. And not just a platform, a megaphone.”
Reporting was contributed by Adam Goldman, Maggie Haberman, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt.