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The test of power

The late US President Abraham Lincoln believed “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” As the midway point in President Donald Trump’s first 100 days passes, it has clearly been a tumultuous period in US politics.

Trump, conscious of the criticism he has faced, recently gave himself an “A+ for effort and a C for presentation” in an interview with Fox News, during which he reviewed his initial period in government. There is no doubt that his haphazard decisions have left the political establishment reeling. Judging by the level of pushback, clearly this administration will be no stranger to controversy.

A recurring feature of analyzes of the administration is the term “deep state.” It has been suggested that Trump has deliberately chosen to lock horns with entrenched military and intelligence communities so as to exercise presidential powers unhindered. In far-flung republics, such powerbases retain the ability to subvert governments and due process.

It is alleged that the US harbors such shadowy groupings, which have sought to curb the president’s powers. Following the resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, online interest in the term reached its highest point last month. The term is also frequently on message boards used by Trump supporters and websites friendly to him.

They claim the establishment is staging a coup against Trump in leaking information to discredit members of his Cabinet, including Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In this context, the administration has perpetuated Trump’s campaign notion that he is the subject of opposition from established forces.

All democracies include unelected, and at least partly unaccountable, institutions and appointees that can challenge democratically elected ones. Deep-rooted political networks will always have permanent bureaucracies able to subvert elected administrations, simply by virtue of their permanence, knowledge and experience.

And why not, given the flaw of the US system in allowing a candidate with a complete disregard for due process and freedom of the press to be elected? With both houses of Congress in his pocket, the presence of institutions to contain his power should be welcomed.

No doubt the leaking of documents, closed briefings with reporters, a very critical press, and intelligence sources continually making confidential discussions public (the cause of Flynn’s ousting) indicate a level of opposition to the president.

Such resistance is much wider than the “deep state.” Allegations of Obama-era tapping of Trump’s phones have heightened interest in such machinations. They indicate that Trump, never the cherub of existing power structures, continues to be the subject of their sabotage.

Liberals often complained that US democracy was limited in how only accepted candidates from the elite of two main parties could only hope to exercise power. Now that the system has shown itself to be nimble enough to allow for the election of a rabble-rouser, civil servants — both left and right of center — are working frantically to mitigate his power.

The leaking of documents, closed briefings with reporters, a very critical press, and intelligence sources continually making confidential discussions public (the cause of Flynn’s ousting) indicate a level of opposition to US President Donald Trump. 

Zaid M. Belbagi

The very nature of Trump’s election has even been rewritten so as to shroud it in mystery and allegations of foul play. Stephen F. Cohen in The Nation discussed “the nearly full-political-spectrum tsunami of accusations that Trump is Russia’s stooge,” referring to the role of Kremlin cyberattacks in helping to derail Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. Such hysteria has even gone so far as to warn of the “Trump-Putin regime,” as a New York Times columnist did recently.

But regardless of the level of speculation, these do not amount to the unrestrained actions of a hidden hand. A true deep state, seen elsewhere, involves conspiracy and those willing to kill opponents. As a gulf grows between the civil service and the White House, what we are seeing is a worried nation using the full toolkit of bureaucratic resistance to contain an overbearing and rash president from codifying the absurd into state policy.

Last Tuesday, Trump hailed “a new chapter of American greatness” in an address to Congress, promising a $54 billion surge in defense spending. It was a show of force of which Captain America would have been proud. However, the presidency of the world’s most powerful nation does not necessitate the same skillset of a comic-book hero.

In the same week, the White House barred a number of mainstream media outlets, including the BBC, from off-camera briefings, while Trump publicly declined an invitation to the White House correspondents’ dinner, showing a continued disdain for the media criticism of his tenure.

This is all the more concerning as the office of the president experiences a period of undue power and oversight. Though the US constitution lays out the president’s role in detail, it has grown massively since the early 20th century. The office has obtained powers far beyond those dreamed by the founding fathers, especially regarding exploiting the constitutional right to issue executive orders on matters of national security.

Propped up by the Office of Legal Counsel, which has grown into an army of lawyers that seek to provide legal cover for the president’s actions, the power of the president is worrying, opening it up as a potential platform for abuse of office. Though controversial presidents are always criticized (George W. Bush and Barack Obama were both accused of impeachable offenses), Trump’s situation is different.

Since the Democrats do not control either house of Congress, let alone a two-thirds majority, they will struggle to oppose him. Importantly, though Obama and Bush honored the conditional system when their ambitions were checked and they were forced to reconsider, Trump’s rhetoric shows a complete disregard for the constitution.

Under such circumstances, the US owes a debt of gratitude to its institutions, media, activist movements and intelligence networks in doing their best to frustrate the plans of a very peculiar administration.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.