War Stories

Trump Is Making a Serious Attempt to Hold Onto Power

After years of railing against the “deep state,” he’s trying to build his own.

Trump is seen in the back of a car.
President Donald Trump sits in a motorcade as he returns to the White House on Saturday. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s campaign to challenge the results of the election is not merely a salve to his wounded ego but a serious attempt to stay in power—if not from inside the Oval Office for another four years, then through confederates well placed in what he has called the “deep state.”

Trump’s firing of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday was only the beginning of this effort—and not a long-lasting one, but rather a spiteful poke at a once-kowtowing official who had turned into a dissenting irritant.

More serious is a move, reported in Tuesday’s Washington Post, to make Michael Ellis—senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council and a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, Trump’s most loyal servant on the House Intelligence Committee—the general counsel of the National Security Agency. This was done at the insistence of the White House, over the objections of the NSA director, Gen. Paul Nakasone, who preferred to promote a professional staffer instead.

Two things are significant about this move. First, the general counsel is a civil service position, meaning Ellis will have protections against being fired for political reasons (though he could be transferred to a different job) under a new administration. Second, the NSA—the nation’s largest and most secretive intelligence agency—has the technical tools to spy on American citizens and engage in other illegal and politically motivated acts. (During the Nixon administration, the NSA and CIA spied on political enemies and anti-war protesters.) The agency’s large staff of lawyers, who were put in place as part of the post-Nixon reforms, stand as the only effective force that blocks this tendency, and they take this job very seriously. Installing a rank partisan as the agency’s top lawyer endangers this thin veneer of safety.

As the Post reported, Ellis played a key role in gaining access to intelligence files that his former boss, Nunes, hoped (fruitlessly) would buttress claims that Obama had spied on the Trump campaign in 2016. Ellis was also the one who proposed taking the memorandum of Trump’s famous phone call with the Ukrainian president—the one in which he pressured the Ukrainian to launch a probe of Joe Biden’s son Hunter—and burying it in a highly classified server.

A former senior NSA official confirmed the Post story to me this morning and added that agency staffers, with whom he remains in touch, are highly concerned about Trump’s move. “It’s about burrowing Trump loyalists into suspected ‘deep state’ agencies,” the former official told me. “This is consistent with Trump’s ongoing effort to hold onto power by making sure no institution can be used to defy his grip. I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but this situation has no other reasonable explanation.”

Ellis does face one possible obstacle to his appointment: He has to pass an investigation, including a polygraph test, to obtain the necessary, very high-level security clearances. It will be worth watching to see if Trump—who, as president, has extensive powers to grant clearances—orders the review expedited.

This is not the end of the story. Trump is reportedly keen to fire other top security officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray, both of whom are seen as independent figures. A year ago, he fired Dan Coats as director of national intelligence for too openly filing intelligence reports that conflicted with Trump’s talking points about Iran, North Korea, Russia, and much of the rest of the world. He replaced Coats with John Ratcliffe, a Republican congressman whom he’d wanted to place in the job before naming Coats—until Republican senators made clear they wouldn’t confirm him, regarding him as too partisan and inexperienced for the task of supervising the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies. Nonetheless, after firing Coats, Trump nominated Ratcliffe after all, and the once-leery senators, clutching Trump’s coattails in an election year, confirmed him after all. Ratcliffe, a conspiracy theorist and one of Trump’s most loyal defenders during the Mueller probe and the impeachment trial, has done much to politicize the intelligence that makes its way to the White House.

Back in the Pentagon, after Esper was fired, James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, resigned in protest. Stepping up the chaos throughout the Defense Department, Christopher Miller—handpicked by Trump to take Esper’s place as defense secretary immediately—named Anthony Tata to take Anderson’s place. A retired one-star general turned action novelist, and Fox News commentator, Tata has publicly called Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” among other incendiary remarks. For that reason, Senate leaders declined to consider Tata for the job when Trump tried to nominate him last summer. On Tuesday morning, Miller, no doubt at Trump’s behest, named Tata an official “performing the duties of” the undersecretary for policy.

Finally, this week, Emily Murphy, director of the obscure General Services Administration, refused to sign the letter that would allow Biden’s transition team to set up offices, meet with current officials, and examine policy documents in the 10 weeks between now and the inauguration.* Murphy has adopted Trump’s rhetoric to a T, saying that the election isn’t over until the investigations into fraud are completed and the electors are certified. This goes against standard practice in all previous postelection periods.

As a result of this chicanery, current officials, many of whom would like to brief their counterparts from the incoming Biden administration, are legally unable to do so. (Pentagon officials have prepared briefing books, but for now they have to stay on the shelf.) At the very least, this obstruction will make it difficult for Biden and his Cabinet to make assessments, set policies, and govern effectively when they take office on Jan. 20.

It is unclear whether Trump believes his court challenges in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will actually tilt the election and hand him a second term in the White House. (Most lawyers and many of his aides don’t think the motions will succeed.) Meanwhile, Trump has convinced tens of millions of his followers that the election was “stolen,” thus delegitimizing Biden’s term in their eyes from the get-go. And through his firings and blockings, he is weakening, if not sabotaging, Biden’s first few months at an administrative level. Whatever Trump believes happened on Nov. 3, he seems to have decided that if he goes down, he’ll do his damnedest to take his successor and much of the country down with him.

Correction, Nov. 10, 2020: This piece originally misidentified GSA Administrator Emily Murphy as Ellen Murphy.