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How Trump's 'War' On The 'Deep State' Is Leading To The Dismantling Of Government


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump's war on the deep state is the subject of a new article by my guest, Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. Osnos writes about how Trump and his administration's loyalists are reshaping American governance. He says President Trump has rid himself of people who question him, like James Comey, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson. The president is on his third national security adviser and his sixth communications director. More than half of the 656 most critical positions in government remain unfilled. Civil servants who aren't considered sufficiently loyal have been moved out of their positions and banished to marginal jobs. Later, we'll talk about America's increasingly complex and confusing relationship with North Korea and China. Osnos covered China for eight years.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So do you think the Trump administration is trying to dismantle the U.S. government as we know it?

EVAN OSNOS: They're definitely trying to dismantle parts of it, and they say as much. In the campaign, you remember they talked about draining the swamp. That was one of the key slogans, and that took on other forms at various points. Donald Trump would talk about the war on the deep state, by which he meant the power elite, the permanent bureaucracy, the people who were, in his vision, sort of running things behind the scene. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist at the time, used to talk about the deconstruction of the administrative state, which is a wonkier way of saying more or less the same thing, the idea that the goal was to come into Washington and roll back this system of rules, regulations, taxes, treaties and the people who were responsible for putting them in place and that that would be the primary project of the Trump presidency.

GROSS: Well, he's certainly getting a head start in rolling back treaties.

OSNOS: He did, yeah, absolutely. And, you know, as he said from the beginning, he said I'm going to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was the trade deal in Asia, and he did that. He said he would pull out of the Paris climate deal, and he did that. And of course, most recently, he said he would pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, and now he's done that. So I think probably it shouldn't be that much of a surprise, but it still catches people off guard just because these are such dramatic changes in the course of American diplomacy and policy.

GROSS: So do you think Trump's goal is to shrink the government or to remove people who aren't hardcore Trump supporters or both or other things?

OSNOS: It's a combination of both. I mean, the goal of shrinking the government is a familiar one. It's a central plank of the modern conservative movement, the idea that the government is simply too big, too expensive, that it's staffed by people who are out of touch with what real Americans want, that it's bloated, you know, that it undertakes these kinds of elitist esoteric projects. That's something that we've heard from candidates going back a generation. But the specific goal of trying to remove the United States from what his administration regards as kind of these international encumbrances, these things that are constraining the United States, preventing us from being the sovereign nation that we are - that's specific to the Trump presidency. That's something that really they brought into Washington. And as part of that, the intersection of those two ideas was about personnel. It was about people.

You know, that's one of the really key points that has become clear over the last 15, 16 months of the Trump administration is that they deeply believe that their success depends on people, on having the right people around them. And, you know, Ronald Reagan's White House had this concept, which has become part of Washington politics, the idea that personnel is policy, that you will not get your agenda accomplished if you don't have the right people. And ever since then, that idea has grown, and we've now seen it take on its most dramatic form in this presidency.

GROSS: Let's just get a sense of how many unfilled critical positions there are in the Trump administration. What comes under that umbrella of critical positions?

OSNOS: Well, some of the most important jobs in American foreign policy and national security, for instance, many of the people at the assistant secretary level - these are the people just below the secretary of state - those jobs are by and large unfilled. In fact, if you go from agency to agency, what people will tell you is that there are so many vacancies that career staff have been temporarily elevated. They've been put into these acting positions where they're sort of running jobs that would traditionally be filled by political appointees. But this is the largest number of vacancies that we've ever had in the U.S. government at this altitude. Some of the most important jobs around the president are empty, and we haven't really been in that situation before.

GROSS: It also seems, from what you write, that the president and his administration are trying to sideline or push out people who they think are unfriendly to the Trump policies. And you give some examples of this, people who have been pushed out or marginalized within the Trump administration because of their politics. And one example you give is Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, whose parents migrated from Iran to the U.S. so that her father could finish his training in obstetrics. What kind of work had she done starting in the Bush administration?

OSNOS: She joined the government during the Bush administration when the administration put out this call to Americans, you may remember, saying, look, if you're familiar with the cultures of the Middle East, we need your help. This was after 9/11. The U.S. was short on speakers of critical languages. And Sahar Nowrouzzadeh who was an - had gone to school at George Washington University, which was, you know, close enough to the Pentagon that students could see smoke rising from the building. She answered that call, and she joined the government at the Department of Defense, became an analyst there. She spoke Persian, Dari, Arabic, and over the course of the next 13 years, she sort of rose up through the ranks, became an expert on Iran. And she received a bunch of awards from the Departments of Defense and State and the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI. And she was one of the people who negotiated this deal with Iran, the Iran nuclear deal. She was assigned to that project as part of the National Security Council.

GROSS: And this is the deal that President Trump recently pulled out of. So how did the word spread that she worked on the Iran deal and therefore was the kind of person - persona non grata within the Trump administration?

OSNOS: Well, she was sort of this anonymous figure, frankly, for most people. Unless you were really focused on national security or you worked on these issues, people didn't really know her name. But in March of 2017, just a few weeks after the president took office, there was an article that appeared on a website called the Conservative Review, which was very opposed to the Iran deal, wanted to have it revoked. And they singled her out. And they said that she was basically a traitor. They said she'd been a holdover of the Obama administration. They said that she was friendly to Tehran.

And in that article - we now know because of emails that have become public that that article circulated inside the administration. People sent it in. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and adviser to the White House, sent the article and said this is something you should be aware of. And as it did, people in the White House began to ask questions about her status, her - what's called her appointment authority, the degree to which she could be moved or hired or fired. And within a few weeks, she was told to clean out her desk at the - in the office where she was at the State Department and to move out into a sort of unspecified role in the Office of Iranian Affairs. And, you know, for somebody of her experience, that was really like bureaucratic Siberia. And the effort was quite clear that it was designed to move her away from any position of contact or influence with real policymaking.

And this case, Nowrouzzadeh's case, attracted a lot of attention among civil servants because it was a real break from the past. And, you know, historically, civil servants - these are the people who are not partisan, are not political appointees - they're supposed to be insulated from the rise and fall of the political factions. And it's - you know, they are supposed to be the ones who stay. And here was a case in which somebody was being, in effect, it seemed punished for having been assigned to work on a project of priority to the Obama administration.

GROSS: And she's filed a complaint.

OSNOS: She did. She filed a complaint on the basis of alleging discrimination, and she and the State Department have settled, and she stayed in the government, and she's told friends, look, my heart is still in public service, but she's very limited in what she can say publicly. But her case, it turns out, the more you look into this - and I started to talk to people across the government inside the State Department and other agencies - that there are versions of that same predicament, that same treatment, that are happening elsewhere.

GROSS: You write that there are hundreds of State Department employees who have been banished to a bizarre form of bureaucratic purgatory. What are you talking about?

OSNOS: Yeah. This was a surprising one. I started to hear about a new assignment to - what's known as FOIA duty. That stands for the Freedom of Information Act. And, you know, when people file their FOIA requests to the government - journalists, scholars, others - somebody has to read those requests and process them, and it's really basically sort of clerical work. As somebody put it to me, a smart intern could do it. But in October of last year, Rex Tillerson assigned hundreds of diplomats to it. And these were people all the way up to ambassador level. These were really specialized civil servants. And what they discovered pretty quickly was that they had something in common, which is that many of them had worked on issues of priority to the Obama administration, so things like refugee resettlement or Iran issues - things like that - closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

And in Washington, this idea, this practice of sort of marooning people in obscure assignments has a name. This is kind of an old tradition here. It's known as sending people to the turkey farm. And so these diplomats who were now sent to the turkey farm found themselves basically put on the shelf. And, you know - as one of them put it to me, if - you know, this is just such a strange way to use all of these accumulated years of expertise and the investment in our language skills and our knowledge, but we are regarded as, as he put it, the disloyals (ph). We're the ones - the unreliables, the undesirables.

GROSS: So the people who were sent to the turkey farm, so to speak - do think that the ultimate goal is to just marginalize people who might disagree, or do you think President Trump feels, I don't need anybody in those positions anyways; I know what I'm doing; I'm following my gut; I'm the only one who counts? - which is a direct quote from something he said earlier.

OSNOS: Well, the president definitely takes a kind of leadership-oriented view of diplomacy, to put it one way. He really believes that what he can do in the room with a foreign leader is what matters and that these large staffs are more of a hindrance than they are a help. But there is also a really clear sense that this administration regards the machine of government - this huge apparatus, 2.8 million civilians across 250 different agencies - it regards that workforce as something more like a vanquished foe than it does like an apparatus that they can use to achieve their ends.

And this really goes back to how he came into Washington, which was promising to undo so much of the ecosystem that makes the city work as it does. And so when he got here, he was well aware of the fact that many of those diplomats had not agreed with his policies. And within the first couple of weeks of being in office, diplomats at the State Department signed, as you remember, this dissent cable - more than a thousand of them objecting to the president's executive order that was barring travelers from Muslim countries. And that really soured the relationship between the White House and the State Department in particular. And the view was, it's better to have those jobs empty and it's better to have those diplomats sidelined than it is to have them getting in our way.

GROSS: Well, Mike Pompeo, who's the new secretary of state, is apparently changing personnel policies so that people aren't fired and more people are hired. Do I have that right?

OSNOS: That's right, yeah. He is.

GROSS: How do you read that?

OSNOS: Well, I think it - and this was expected - that he - he came in after Rex Tillerson, who was really just supremely unpopular inside the State Department - and also in the White House by the end. But Mike Pompeo, who has been very skillful at managing his course within the Trump administration, recognized that if he could give something to the State Department, to the staff, to the building, as it's known, then he would instantly get benefits from that. People would rally around him because they were really demoralized. And I think he's done that. And I - you know, to give him credit, I think he has recognized that the effort to pull back the power and influence of the State Department was really undermining America's ability to operate in this incredibly complicated moment with crises in Syria, and growing, complex problems with Iran and with North Korea and with China. So he has sort of breathed some life back into the building. As he says, he wants to give it its swagger back. But there is a lot of ground that has to be made up.

GROSS: Well, why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. His new article is called "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. He covers politics and foreign affairs. He covered China for eight years. His article in the current edition of The New Yorker is called "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance."

So we've been talking about some of the people who have been marginalized, sent to the so-called turkey farm in the Trump administration because they were considered irrelevant or because they worked on Obama-era policies, and Trump doesn't feel like they will be loyalists to him. There's a way to appeal if you're a civil servant who thinks that you've been mistreated, but there's a catch right now if you want to appeal. Would you explain the catch?

OSNOS: Yeah. The way that you appeal, if you're a civil servant who feels that you've been mistreated, is you file your complaint to what's called the Merit Systems Protection Board. You know, this is an institution. It's almost - acts in a sort of semijudicial way. They render judgments, and they can give people benefits, and settlements and so on. The only problem is that the Merit Systems Protection Board has been paralyzed for the last 15 or 16 months because right before Donald Trump took office, one of its officers stepped down. And by law, it needs to have two officers in place in order to function, and it was now beneath that level. And therefore, it essentially ground to a halt.

So there was, you know, one officer left, and he was continuing to do his work. He - the complaints would come in, and he would try to read them and mark them up with notes, but basically, they were just piling up in an office. I went by not long ago, and he showed me these cartons of complaints coming in. And they were just, you know, up to your shoulder level, these great piles of paper that were, you know, in a sense, a kind of symbol of the ways in which the lives of civil servants - the - you know, the main body of the American government - had entered this strange holding pattern. There was just no way to get them adjudicated.

And then the story takes one more turn, which is that finally, in March of this year, the Trump administration did appoint somebody, so that meant that the office could return to normal operations. But what it turned out was that they had appointed somebody to fill the spot of the one officer in place, not to fill the vacancies. And that meant that all the work that he had done over the course of the last year and some months was now legally void and had to be chucked out. So there's now a backlog of about 900-plus cases that will take several years to work through before civil servants can be granted any kind of relief. And for advocates of civil servants, people who are worried about the function and competence of the American government, they say, you know, we think this was deliberate, that this was a kind of sabotage by the White House to discourage other civil servants from filing complaints. If they knew that the board was paralyzed, that would basically prevent them from complaining at all.

GROSS: You know, you write that one of the department's most hard hit by President Trump's war on the, quote, "deep state" is the Department of the Interior, which is now being run by Ryan Zinke, and he's adapted - you say he's adapted Trump's approach to expertise, loyalty and dissent. So what's going on there now?

OSNOS: Yeah, that, I discovered at the Department of Interior, is a reflection of something that's happening across the government, which is that some of the practices and the habits of the White House are now trickling down into the agencies and beginning to shape day-to-day decision-making. It's not just the pyrotechnics that we see in the West Wing, but it's now actually where the rubber meets the road, the way the government function.

I'll - and I'll give you an example. A few months ago, the leadership of the Department of Interior, Ryan Zinke, got very unhappy with the press coverage that he was getting. There had been a leak that he was intending to go ahead with the largest rollback in protected public land in American history, and so Zinke and other appointees ordered an attempt to try to plug the leaks. You know, this is the sort of thing we hear about a lot from the White House. There's this preoccupation with leaks. And a civil servant named Matthew Allen was asked to plug the leaks.

Matthew Allen was an Army veteran who'd worked at the Pentagon on the counter-ISIS campaign, eventually came over to the Department of Interior, and he said, look, I don't think that we can plug the leaks quite the way that you imagine; this is not classified material; this is not the sort of stuff that is illegal to circulate in many cases. And he registered his objections. They told him again to plug the leaks, and what they also told them was that they wanted to see every FOIA request that was coming in. Every Freedom of Information Act request about one of them, they wanted to see.

And when he said, look; I don't think I have the authority or the legal latitude to do this, he was, as they say in Washington, turkey farmed. He was assigned to this new job that had no staff, no responsibilities. It didn't appear on any organizational chart. And he was rendered, in effect, kind of inoperative. And he has filed a complaint, saying that he believes he was subject to political retaliation.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. His article in the current issue is titled "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State.'" We'll talk more about how the president and his loyalists are reshaping American governance, and we'll discuss the complicated and confusing relationship between America, North Korea and China after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. We're talking about his article in the current issue. It's "Titled Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance." Osnos writes about how Trump has rid himself of top people in government who question him and banished many civil servants who aren't considered sufficiently loyal and move them to marginal jobs. More than half of the 656 most critical government positions are unfilled.

When Trump was campaigning for president, he bragged about how he only hired the best people and he was going to hire the best people as president. You have a very interesting comparison in your article about the Obama vetting process versus the Trump vetting process. Would you make that comparison for us?

OSNOS: The Trump administration adopted a very different way of vetting candidates than the Obama administration had - or previous administrations. I mean, just to give you a literal example, the Obama administration used a questionnaire that had 63 different queries on it. The Trump administration cut down the number of questions to 25, and they got rid of certain things. They stopped asking for professional references from job candidates who were seeking jobs in the administration. They stopped asking for tax returns. Of course it would've been awkward given that the president has not released his tax return. And they eliminated a number of the questions about personal income.

And if you talk to the lawyers who were involved in the transition, what they tell you is that Don McGahn, the White House counsel who was overseeing the process, was really eager to try to move it along as efficiently as possible. As he put it, he was - as one lawyer said, he was looking for workarounds, ways that candidates could be brought into office even if they had complex financial backgrounds. And this caused some concern among lawyers because they said, look, the law is complicated on this. And if you move too fast, you may end up with candidates who are not going to be the most durable office holders.

GROSS: So how has that affected who has been hired? I mean, you write that this has opened the door to basically special interest groups getting their own people into key positions.

OSNOS: There have been several think tanks in Washington that have - and donor networks, as they're called, that have put people in office. So initially, the Heritage Foundation - a prominent conservative think tank - they forwarded a group of candidates who have found jobs. The donor network associated with Charles and David Koch, which consists of a large number of organizations that promote libertarian and conservative ideas, they have succeeded in promoting candidates that have then been approved. So the administration has really relied on those outside organizations to provide names.

And, you know, I should say previous administrations have also turned to think tanks and to donors for names, but what we're seeing in this case is much more pronounced. There are just simply many more people coming from these very specific ideological and political bastions. And part of the reason is that the president was - as we all know - had come to office over the objections of many establishment Republicans. And hundreds of them had signed these letters where they were, you know, calling themselves basically never-Trumpers, saying they would never support a President Trump. And for that reason, the White House still prevents any of those more conventional, more seasoned Republicans from joining the administration.

As somebody said to me recently, if you forward a name - if you're asked to provide a candidate for a specific kind of, you know, very technical job, you might have the perfect person. But when they ask you if that person ever signed a letter - well, then the process is over. And that leaves them with a much narrower and much sort of shallower pool of conceivable candidates to hire.

GROSS: In part because of this kind of lax vetting process that you've described, some of the nominees for positions really embarrass themselves during hearings. Do you want to give an example of that?

OSNOS: Yeah. One example is somebody who was assigned to be the assistant to the secretary of energy. This is the agency, after all, that's responsible for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. His name is Sid Bowdidge. And it became clear that, actually, his previous employment was unrelated to this. He had been working at a Meineke car repair shop in New Hampshire. He also worked as a massage therapist. And he eventually departed the government after it also emerged that he had described Muslims as, in his words, maggots. And so he departed the Department of Energy, but it was embarrassing to the administration. And versions of that have been going on away from the cameras as well.

And then there are people below the waterline. That's a term that you hear sometimes in Washington, meaning people who are not subject to Senate confirmation. These are people who really receive almost no public attention whatsoever but are just installed. They don't need to get public attention. There's no legal requirement for their names to be disclosed until they run into trouble. And in those cases, there have also been a number of sort of high-profile flameouts.

GROSS: One of the new hires in the Trump administration is John Bolton. He is the new national security adviser. You're probably familiar with him from the Iraq War days.

OSNOS: Right. Exactly. John Bolton was one of the advocates for the invasion of Iraq. He was a senior arms control expert at the State Department and has been sort of in Washington ever since - you know, not in especially prominent roles, but he's well-known, particularly to Republicans, in that administration.

GROSS: One of the people you spoke to for your New Yorker piece is Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell's chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration, and - you know, during the lead-up to the war in Iraq and during the war in Iraq. And he told you he's afraid that the Trump administration is building a case for attacking Iran just as the Bush administration built a case for invading Iraq under the false charges that Iraq had functioning weapons of mass destruction. Do you share his concern about Iran?

OSNOS: Well, I do see a pattern emerging - that the administration is making an increasingly strident case that Iran as a national security threat to the United States, as they put it, is something that we cannot afford to wait to resolve. And that is language that is very similar to what we heard in 2002 and 2003. You know, the key message in the run-up to the war in Iraq was that this was a war of necessity. We didn't have a choice was what we were told because if we didn't do it - that Iraq was developing the chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons that would be a risk to the U.S.

And Lawrence Wilkerson was, as he readily described, one of the people who was responsible for making that case. He helped write the speech that Colin Powell gave to the U.N. Security Council in which he argued for support of the invasion of Iraq. And what Wilkerson says today is that he sees very much, as he put it, the same playbook, and that worries him. And I think there's some real truth to that. But as he put it, you know, some of the same people are now in place, and John Bolton is at the center of his argument.

John Bolton, unlike others who were advocating for the war in Iraq, still believes that it was the right idea. Some people have renounced their views. They said they were mistaken. John Bolton believes that it was the right idea to invade, and that the problem was in execution and implementation. And he comes into office with a very clear public record. He has argued for regime change in Iran and North Korea. And he's now at the very center of American national security, and that gives pause to his critics.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, covering politics and foreign affairs. His article in the current edition is called "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker covering politics and foreign affairs. He covered China for eight years. His article in the current edition of The New Yorker is called "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance."

Steve Bannon recently told you that Trump is unchained. He said this is primal Trump, back to the leader he was during the campaign - the same one the American people voted into office. There are no more McMasters in the apparatus. Trump's got stuff he's got to get done, and he's going to get it done. I think what Bannon is saying there is there's no one left to restrain President Trump.

OSNOS: That's right. And from Bannon's perspective, that's a good thing. For the first year of the administration, there were people in the system - whether it was H.R. McMaster or, to some degree, Rex Tillerson or Gary Cohn who worked on economic policy - these were people who sometimes questioned the president and sometimes to their own detriment in their relationships with him. They were all eventually driven out. And as Bannon told me, those people are gone now. And nobody has replaced them in that way. There is nobody around the president who can tell him no. The obstructionists are gone. So we're now into a phase in which the president - and the people around him say this very clearly. He feels liberated - unobstructed. He's now going to do the things that he said he would do as a candidate. And there's very few people at his - around him who can stop that or slow it down.

GROSS: So there have been other chapters in American history when a president has felt unrestrained, but there has been somebody in the administration who has tried to prevent him from doing something rash. And one example you give of that is Melvin Laird, the defense secretary during part of the Nixon administration. What did he do?

OSNOS: Yeah, this is a dramatic moment. Melvin Laird in 1969 was Richard Nixon's secretary of defense. And Nixon had this idea which he called the madman theory - the idea that if he made the Soviet Union think that he was crazy - that he was unhinged - that they might capitulate to American interests. And so he wanted to do things that were especially aggressive. And in 1969, he ordered Melvin Laird to put the U.S. nuclear forces on high alert, meaning that they would send out planes and let it be known to the Soviet Union that they were essentially, potentially, preparing to use the nuclear arsenal.

And Melvin Laird thought that was a very, very dangerous idea. He thought it was a mistake. He thought the madman theory was nuts, and so he delayed. And he dissembled. Actually, what he told the president was, I can't do it. You know, we're busy with another exercise. We're already committed. It's too complicated. He hoped the president would forget about it.

A few days later, the president came back - asked about it again. And ultimately, Laird had to go ahead with it. To not do so would've been illegal. And in the event, the U.S. did mobilize its planes. And what we now know from studies of that moment was that it was actually a very dangerous thing to do. B-52s that were loaded with nuclear weapons were flown towards the Soviet Union. And some of them ended up coming close to other aircraft in a way that was later described in an after action report as unsafe. So Melvin Laird tried but ultimately was not able to prevent that operation entirely.

GROSS: Let me mention another example that you cite. In 1974 toward the end of the Nixon presidency - during the Watergate investigations, some of his advisers regarded him as unsteady. And James Schlesinger, the secretary of defense, issued a directive to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that any emergency order coming from the president should be diverted to Schlesinger before any actions were taken. Did that happen?

OSNOS: We don't really know. It's never come out whether or not he was called upon to do that. But one of the reasons why it's so interesting is that this was a really dramatic thing to do - to stand up and to say in a way that might not even be legal, I need to be a circuit breaker in this process. I don't believe that the president is in full command of his decision-making. At the time, remember, Nixon was deeply troubled by the Watergate investigations. He was drinking heavily. And so the people around the president - you know, the people who are both immediately around him and then throughout the government, throughout the national security system and throughout the foreign policy system - they are essential. These are the people who - day to day - keep the country safe. And we have learned what happens when we don't have capable, independent, strong people in those jobs.

GROSS: A lot of people are concerned that President Trump is impulsive. He has access to nuclear weapons. He trusts his gut. He trusts his opinion. What if he decides impulsively to launch a nuclear weapon? Is there anybody to serve as a circuit breaker?

OSNOS: It's a strange thing to say, Terry, but we won't know until and if that moment happens - because the way that these - you know, that a lot of these kinds of dramatic gestures have to happen in private. We didn't know at the time that James Schlesinger had given this order. We didn't know at the time that Melvin Laird had sought to try to prevent the president from deploying the nuclear arsenal in that way or at least mobilizing it. So, you know, but what we do know is that the White House has been moving quite systematically to try to remove people who might be an obstacle when the president tries to achieve his objectives.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned Nixon's madman theory. Do you think Trump is operating on a similar theory in the sense that he always says he loves chaos? And he's created a lot of chaos nationally and internationally.

OSNOS: He has, and he has also talked about his love of unpredictability. He said a number of times that he thinks it's a mistake for the United States to be predictable. He thinks that boxes us in, and it's harder for presidents to intimidate or to motivate other countries to comply. This is obviously at odds with what a lot of the national security establishment believes. What they say is that unpredictability is OK for small countries. If you're a small, weak country, it's fine to be unpredictable. It's how you keep big countries off balance. But if you're a big country like the United States, what you're trying to do is project authority and stability and consistency, and that that's the way that you maintain your long-term power and influence. But Donald Trump disagrees.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance." We'll be back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, who covers politics and foreign affairs. He covered China for eight years. His article in the current edition of The New Yorker is called "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance."

So I want to change the subject a little bit and talk about what's happening with the U.S., China and North Korea and how that's all interrelated. So as we record, North Korea has postponed and may end up canceling its meeting with South Korea, its next meeting, and has threatened to cancel its meeting with President Trump. This took the Trump administration by surprise. Trump is calling for total denuclearization. Do you think there's any way that Kim Jong Un would do that?

OSNOS: Well, the theory has been for a long time that Kim Jong Un would not do that. They've spent decades developing this nuclear arsenal. It's really the centerpiece of their national self mythology, the idea that a small, poor country has been able to develop this despite the objections of the rest of the world. So the view has been for a long time that they will not give them up. They won't bargain them away. But that's come into some greater debate recently because, as we all know, over the last few months, North Korea has made a series of rapid changes to try to get to the negotiating table with the United States and with South Korea. So it's at least raised the possibility that they're willing to talk about the nuclear arsenal, maybe not give it away but at least talk about the size and the way that it's deployed. And that created a basis for potential negotiation, which is now very much in doubt.

But one of the things that's become clear over the course of the last few days is that North Korea is paying very close attention to the way that the Trump administration is talking about the North Korea summit. In their comments, they said specifically that they would not be pressured into what they described as a unilateral nuclear abandonment. They were very critical, specifically of John Bolton. John Bolton, they said, has been talking about North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic benefits. And what that tells us is something that's very interesting, which is that we sometimes imagine North Korea as really operating out on its own. It, you know, operates in very strange ways.

But one thing that I've seen both in the country and then in my dealings with North Korean officials elsewhere is that they follow every word that comes out of this White House very closely. They watch the Sunday shows. They follow his Twitter traffic. And they began to hear over the last few days this sort of triumphalist tone that was creeping into the way the president was talking about this upcoming summit, you know, the chants of Nobel, Nobel, that he was hearing at his rallies. And I think there was some pushback within the Pyongyang leadership that said hold on a second. We do not want to be portrayed here as weak, as being patsies to the United States. And we have the power to stop the train in its tracks.

GROSS: So you think that the postponement or pulling out of the meeting with South Korea and the threat to pull out of the meeting with President Trump is in part a direct reaction to the chance of Nobel, Nobel, like its President Trump who is working this miracle and Kim Jong Un isn't going to get his due.

OSNOS: I do. I think that based on the statements that the North Koreans have made in the last few days, it's quite clear that they were bothered by the language the Trump administration has been using to talk about what it's describing as a victory before they have sat down at the negotiating table.

GROSS: I wonder how the Trump administration is going to interpret that.

OSNOS: We will see. But they have - you know, one thing that North Korea does very effectively - they've done this historically and they're doing it now - is that they have figured out that if a foreign leader gets really invested in a negotiation with North Korea as Donald Trump is - you know, he now likes to talk about his role in bringing these countries together at the - you know, for a summit, that that's a kind of leverage because if they can bring him to this state where his brand and his politics and his success are wrapped up in his ability to sit down with Kim Jong Un, if they threatened to pull the rug out from under that, well then they have a point of leverage that they didn't have before. And they are manipulating that quite effectively.

GROSS: Oh, that's really interesting. So what's the nature of China's alliance with North Korea, and what does China want right now in that triangle between North Korea, China and the U.S.?

OSNOS: Well, China has been doing some really rapid diplomacy with North Korea recently. Over the last six or seven years, the relationship's been poor. It's been really lousy. You know, Kim Jong Un, since taking power in 2011, never visited China in the beginning. He never went and sort of, you know, did a photo op with the Chinese president. And this bothered people in Beijing a lot. I heard about it frequently. They just thought he was not the kind of partner they could count on.

But then when Kim Jong Un began to pursue this relationship with the United States and there was this talk of a coming summit, all of a sudden, China said, all right. It's time for us old friends, North Korea and China, to sit down and make sure we have a really strong relationship. And what China was worried about was that Kim Jong Un would try to build a relationship with the United States that would give him a new friend, a new, not an ally so much, but at least an alternative to China. And China wants to keep North Korea close.

GROSS: So President Xi could be the president for life if he chooses 'cause China just threw out term limits. It just eliminated term limits on the presidency. So you're right that President Xi might throw out the rules of the international system, including rules on trade, arms and access to international waters. So if China is throwing out the rules, and the U.S. is throwing out a lot of the rules and Putin is violating the rules, that's a very frightening international landscape.

OSNOS: It is. I think you described it well. We're in a strange period now when some of the anchors of the international system, the people and the organizations in the countries that we have assumed to be the ballast that keeps things heading steadily in one direction even when there is conflict in parts of the world, those are in play. And you've got leaders of some of the most powerful countries in the world who are now saying quite publicly and proudly that they're not going to be bound by the normal rules of control, the treaties and the conventions.

And Kim Jong Un is somebody that, if his health holds up, could be in power for decades to come. Xi Jinping is somebody who, depending on what he chooses to do, now has the legal latitude to stay in power for a very long time. And Vladimir Putin, after all, is now essentially president for as long as he chooses to be. So this is a very different geopolitical landscape than we were dealing with as recently as two years ago.

GROSS: Did you hear President Trump make a joke recently about, not only a second term but more, if you want me?

OSNOS: Yeah. He had also made a joke about Xi Jinping's presidency for life, and he thought that sounds pretty good. And, you know, he likes to then play these off and say this is just humor and people shouldn't take it all that seriously.


OSNOS: I think it gives people a lot of concern. If you put it into context of the way that his administration has tried to undermine the integrity and the credibility of other checks on his power, whether it's independent agencies, or judges, or the press, it begins to feel as if he is somebody who is at home in the language and the culture of authoritarianism. And for that reason, I think you see this growing effort, a sort of mobilizing effort, of people around him to try to call attention to these problems.

You know, frankly, Terry, a lot of the people that I spoke to for this story on Donald Trump's war on what he calls the deep state are people who are deeply worried about the decline of American institutions, the things that set us apart from other countries, the organizations that are responsible for rule of law, the things that make us who we are as a country. And they're willing to now speak up in ways that they weren't a year ago because they're concerned about that direction.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, thank you for coming back to our show. It's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you.

OSNOS: My pleasure. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker, covering politics and foreign affairs. His article in the current issue is titled, "Trump Vs. The 'Deep State': How The Administration's Loyalists Are Quietly Reshaping American Governance."


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