WASHINGTON – After years of questioning the loyalty of intelligence agencies, President Donald Trump and his allies are increasingly turning their focus to the military, suggesting without evidence a “deep state” in the Pentagon has joined the resistance.
Trump’s rhetorical attack burst into view this week amid a controversy over the president’s intervention in the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, a conservative cause celebre acquitted on charges he used a knife to kill an Islamic State prisoner.
Trump drew fire from critics for reversing Gallagher’s demotion and ordering that he retain his status as a SEAL, as well as issuing pardons for two Army officers in war crimes cases this month. The Gallagher episode led to the ouster of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who questioned Trump’s decision to overrule the military justice system.
“I stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state,” Trump told a Florida rally on Tuesday, tying the military to his notions of a deep state for the first time. “And you know what I’m talking about. I had so many people say, ‘Sir, don’t think you should do that.’”
Though the president had not personally used the phrase “deep state” before in relation to the Defense Department, the idea has been bubbling up on social and conservative media for weeks. Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, one of the officers Trump pardoned this month, told Newsmax that “a big majority” of the “people with stars on their collar that work in the Pentagon” are “part of what President Trump calls the deep state.”
Lorance, who also called those military officials “corrupt,” did not offer evidence to back up the claim. Lorance was convicted in 2013 of second-degree murder after he ordered his soldiers to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men, two of whom died.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a close Trump ally, raised the term in a tweet applauding the president’s advocacy for Gallagher earlier this month. Hunter wrote to Trump that he would “continue to stand with you” in a fight “against the Deep State Military.” Hunter also did not define the term or explain whom, specifically, he meant.
Hours after Trump’s remarks, Fox News published a column with a headline claiming Spencer’s actions “prove a ‘deep state’ anti-Trump ‘resistance’ exists at Pentagon.”
Left unsaid in accusations of political gamesmanship at the Pentagon is that some of Gallagher’s colleagues testified against him. His teammates told prosecutors Gallagher took “random shots, sometimes into buildings, where he claimed to have killed someone,” according to documents reviewed by Navy Times. Another SEAL said he saw Gallagher “fire into a crowd of what appeared to be noncombatants multiple times.”
Also not mentioned: Trump nominated the same people at the Pentagon at the center of the conspiracy theories, including Spencer, a retired Marine and donor to Republican candidates. Spencer told CBS News Monday that Trump’s intervention in the Gallagher case sends a signal that members of the military can “get away with things.”
Gallagher was acquitted of the most serious charges against him but was convicted in July of posing for a photo with a corpse.
Trump appears to have first used the phrase “deep state” on Twitter in June 2017, retweeting a since-deleted message from Fox News host Sean Hannity about “the Deep State’s allies in the media,” according to a database of the president’s social media posts compiled by the website Factba.se.
As whistleblowers and members of his own administration have come forward as part of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, the president has significantly increased his reliance on the phrase, both on social media and on stage. “Deep state” has appeared in Trump’s Twitter feed 17 times this year, a threefold increase since 2018.
Trump is also using the phrase far more at political rallies this year. He told an audience in Kentucky this month that “the deep state and the failed ruling class are trying to resist any changes to their failed policies of the past.” To an audience in Mississippi days earlier, Trump said that “the deep state are desperate to stop us.”
Months earlier, speaking at the White House, Trump said he doesn’t like to use the phrase at all. “You know, a lot of people say ‘deep state.’ I don’t say ‘deep state,'” Trump said. “We have a lot of bad people and I think they’re being found out.”
But two months later, as he addressed a group of conservative students, the term was back on his lips as he railed against Democrats in Congress.
“We have a deep state. We have bad people,” Trump told the students. “We have sick people.”
The phrase “deep state” is loosely defined as a group of unelected officials within a bureaucracy, something of a shadow government. Experts say the term originated in Turkey as a reference to military officials and their civilian partners.
Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said that Trump’s use of the term is in line with his broader efforts to paint Washington as out of touch with the rest of the nation – a “swamp.” Nichols was speaking in a personal capacity.
“I think the president uses the term ‘deep state’ as a kind of trigger for his rally crowds to mean ‘that hostile government in Washington that is far away from you,’ or ‘everyone in the government but me,'” Nichols said. “It’s very much an ‘us versus them’ distinction.”
Nichols added that Trump seems to believe that “it’s popular to side with ‘tough guys’ and that this, by extension, makes him look tough.”
Trump has described Gallagher and the other soldiers as heroes who were operating in difficult, wartime circumstances. He defended his intervention this week by telling reporters in the Oval Office he has to “protect my warfighters” and claiming that “people in the military have thanked us very much.” In the past, the president has also argued that the cases were poorly handled by prosecutors.
Barb McQuade, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at the University of Michigan, argued that Trump’s emphasis on the “deep state” undermines a federal bureaucracy that is simply trying to do its job.
“There is no such thing as a deep state,” McQuade said. “Professional career public servants who care about following the law are not members of a deep state, they are patriots.”
Fritze covers the White House for USA TODAY. Follow him @jfritze.
Contributing: David Jackson, Jeanine Santucci