Trump is systematically enlisting agencies, including the Postal Service, Census Bureau, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, that traditionally have been considered at least somewhat insulated from political machinations to reward his allies and punish those he considers his enemies. He is razing barriers between his personal and political interests and the core operations of the federal government to an extent that no president has previously attempted, a wide range of public-administration experts have told me.
Presidents have always put their stamp on the federal government. It’s common for regulatory agencies, for instance, to dramatically shift direction in their attitude toward Big Business when partisan control of the White House changes. And presidents have always rewarded their political supporters, at times causing scandals because of questionable Cabinet appointments or procurement decisions.
The result of Trump’s moves: an executive branch whose full reach and power is being conscripted to serve the president’s immediate interests. “All of it comes from a place that whatever is in his personal interest—whether it’s financial, reputational, or political—if it benefits him, the government is merely a tool for serving himself,” Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics under former President Barack Obama, told me. “He has simply crossed lines that no one would even conceive of crossing in the past.”
His determination to harness federal power to his personal advantage links his choices throughout his presidency, including funneling federal dollars into businesses he owns and withholding military aid for Ukraine in exchange for an election favor, the actions that led to his impeachment in the House last year.
Experts I spoke with said that Trump has dramatically accelerated the pace of his efforts to weaponize federal actions since his Senate acquittal, when every Republican, except Utah’s Mitt Romney, voted to dismiss the charges against him with no sanction and not even a full-scale trial to explore the evidence.
Beyond his recent efforts to impede mail delivery, Trump has:
- rapidly purged inspectors general across the federal government, replacing five of them within a short period, including the intelligence-community IG who forwarded to Congress the whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment.
- openly pressured the Justice Department to back off the prosecution of his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and to request more lenient sentencing for his ally Roger Stone. Trump later commuted Stone’s sentence outright.
- deployed federal law-enforcement officials from the Department of Homeland Security to confront protesters in Portland, Oregon, and other cities over the explicit objection of governors and mayors.
- enlisted the military into his campaign against protesters, drafting Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley to accompany him during his walk to St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., after armed personnel forcibly cleared out peaceful protesters. The decision prompted so much concern in the military that Milley later apologized.
- taken repeated steps to manipulate the results of the decennial census in a manner that could undercount people of color and benefit the Republican Party. The Supreme Court stopped Trump from adding a citizenship question to the census, but the administration now says it intends to exclude undocumented immigrants from the population counts used to apportion congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states. It also announced it will cut off efforts to contact households that haven’t responded to the census on September 30, despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Census experts and former Census Bureau directors have said that such a truncated schedule is guaranteed to undercount minorities.
The deployment of federal agents this summer may represent the most tangible manifestation of Trump’s determination to wield the federal government as a weapon against his political enemies. Light, who has studied the federal government’s operations for decades and is usually no alarmist, describes it as “shocking.” Sending those assets into cities over the objection of their mayors, he told me, “does resemble the early days of a police state, I’m sorry to say it.”
But if those deployments comprise the most visceral example, Trump’s attempts to manipulate the census may provide the most revealing measure of just how much he’s willing to distort federal operations to benefit himself and his party—and how far congressional Republicans will go in abetting him.