The Deconstruction of the Administrative State

Jacques Derrida’s 1967 work Of Grammatology introduced the idea of deconstructionism – and no one knew what the hell he was talking about. Words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. No word can acquire meaning in the way in which philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell had hoped it might – by being the unmediated expression of something non-linguistic. As a consequence, meaning is never present, but rather is deferred to other signs. A concept must be understood in the context of its opposite, such as being/nothingness, normal/abnormal, speech/writing, and so forth and so on.

Got that? Probably not – but this was useful in the PhD dissertation on the satires of Jonathan Swift. The PhD committee at Duke was okay with that. Satire is about saying one thing and meaning something else entirely, not the opposite but much more than the opposite, and never saying that new thing at all – and everyone immediately gets it anyway. That’s a neat trick. That can be carefully explained, not that anyone cares. No one cares about how the machine-level binary firmware code works on their iPhone or tablet or laptop. They just want to text their friends and watch videos of kittens playing piano. It doesn’t matter how it’s done. Enjoy the results. Laugh at the implied amazing new thing. Everyone does that. For a decade, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were deconstructionists. Colbert still is. Say one thing but mean much more than the opposite. Context is everything.

Deconstructionism is fun, even if Jacques Derrida isn’t, unless it isn’t fun at all. The word can be used in a different way. In late February, Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported on a different usage:

The reclusive mastermind behind President Trump’s nationalist ideology and combative tactics made his public debut Thursday, delivering a fiery rebuke of the media and declaring that the new administration is in an unending battle for “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

This won’t be fun:

Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist and intellectual force behind Trump’s agenda, used his first speaking appearance since Trump took office to vow that the president would honor all of the hardline pledges of his campaign.

Appearing at a gathering of conservative activists alongside Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Bannon dismissed the idea that Trump might moderate his positions or seek consensus with political opponents. Rather, he said, the White House is digging in for a long period of conflict to transform Washington and upend the world order.

This isn’t about semiotics – figuring out how words mean what they don’t seem to mean, unpacking a text, deconstructing it. This is about disassembling the government, and the current world order, not to see how it works, but to but to make sure it never works again:

Bannon framed much of Trump’s agenda with the phrase, “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning the system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president says have stymied economic growth and infringed upon U.S. sovereignty. Bannon says that the post-World War II political and economic consensus is failing and should be replaced with a system that empowers ordinary people over coastal elites and international institutions.

At the core, Bannon said in his remarks, is a belief that “we’re a nation with an economy – not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.”

That was the usual blood-and-soil Christian white nationalist crap from his Breitbart days, dressed up for polite company, but he’s serious:

Bannon repeatedly used the phrase “economic nationalism” and posited that Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.”

Nigel Farage, the British politician who led the successful Brexit movement in the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union, said in an interview at the conference that Bannon has the right vision to reorder world powers.

Is that so? Josh Marshal notes Nigel Farage today:

Yesterday, WikiLeaks released a trove of documents which purport to document numerous hacking tools used by the CIA. The authenticity of these documents hasn’t been formally confirmed. But all signs suggest they are real. Knowledgeable observers say it is a huge setback for the CIA.

Around noon today, someone tipped off Buzzfeed (tip is my surmise but how else would they know to be there?) that Nigel Farage was meeting with Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where Assange been holed up since 2012 to avoid questioning and possible arrest on a sexual assault accusation in Sweden. Farage is a close ally and advisor to President Trump. He has been regularly visiting Washington and New York since Trump’s election and meets with Trump regularly. We don’t know what the two men were discussing. But Farage’s whole world right now is Trump – Trump and breaking apart the EU.

Sometime after noon in London, Farage emerged from the Embassy. Buzzfeed photographed him and asked what he was doing there. Farage refused to say. “I never discuss where I go or who I see.”

A short time later, a source with the UK Independence Party, the party Farage until recently led, confirmed to The Independent that Farage was meeting with Assange and had met with him for about 40 minutes.

This afternoon UK time, Assange holds a press conference discussing his new batch of CIA documents and promising more revelations.

During Sean Spicer’s daily press briefing, an AP reporter asks Spicer about the Farage/Assange meeting and whether he carrying a message from President Trump. Spicer basically ducked the question. But when asked specifically whether Farage was “delivering a message” from Trump, Spicer replied: “I have no idea.”

Sean Spicer was in a difficult spot. No one knows what the hell Jacques Derrida was talking about, but everyone knew what Steve Bannon had said a few weeks earlier. Trump is in a feud with our intelligence community. They may be investigating him – possible connections to the Russian hacking that sunk Hillary Clinton – so the question was obvious. Is the president working with Nigel Farage and Julian Assange, and RT and Russian intelligence, to deconstruct the CIA and end it?

Something is going on:

FBI Director James Comey was on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon, according to several reports…

Spokespeople for several members of the congressional “Gang of Eight” – Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers and of both intelligence committees – declined to confirm that Comey had met with the group.

BuzzFeed reported Thursday that investigators on the Senate Intelligence Committee had been granted unprecedented access to intelligence information for their investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, including information normally reserved for the Gang of Eight.

And there was this:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), discussing the possibility that FBI was investigating ties between the Trump campaign or administration and Russia, said “if there is an investigation at the FBI of Trump, Russia campaign activities, I want to know about it. I’m tired of reading about it in the paper.”

Graham is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. On Wednesday, he and subcommittee Ranking Member Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote to the Department of Justice asking for copies of warrants and court orders “related to wiretaps of President Trump, the Trump Campaign, or Trump Tower.”

Sean Spicer was in a difficult spot again, and there was this:

Federal investigators and computer scientists continue to examine whether there was a computer server connection between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank, sources close to the investigation tell CNN.

Questions about the possible connection were widely dismissed four months ago. But the FBI’s investigation remains open, the sources said, and is in the hands of the FBI’s counterintelligence team – the same one looking into Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 election.

One U.S. official said investigators find the server relationship “odd” and are not ignoring it. But the official said there is still more work for the FBI to do. Investigators have not yet determined whether a connection would be significant.

The server issue surfaced again this weekend, mentioned in a Breitbart article that, according to a White House official, sparked President Trump’s series of tweets accusing investigators of tapping his phone.

CNN is told there was no Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on the server.

The FBI declined to comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, companies involved have provided CNN with new explanations that at times conflict with each other and still don’t fully explain what happened.

Trump should be worried:

President Trump’s weekend Twitter message asserting that former President Barack Obama had tapped his phones forced the White House into ever more verbal contortions on Thursday as aides struggled to defend the president’s charge.

In the latest iteration, the Justice Department declined to comment on whether Mr. Trump is – or is not – the subject of an investigation. “No comment,” a department official said.

In normal circumstances, a “no comment” from the Justice Department on the status of any investigation would be standard practice. And certainly there has never been any indication that Mr. Trump himself was the target of inquiries by the department and congressional intelligence committees into possible contacts between his associates and members of the Russian government.

But by venting his ire against Mr. Obama in a series of Twitter messages at dawn on Saturday, Mr. Trump awkwardly raised that possibility himself, since any wiretapping could have been the direct result of an investigation targeting him.

Oops:

Thursday’s verbal gymnastics actually started on Wednesday when Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, insisted to reporters that the president is not the target of a counterintelligence investigation involving contacts with Russia. He said, flatly, that “there is no reason to believe there is any type of investigation with respect to the Department of Justice.”

That prompted Thursday’s comments from a Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. The official said that Mr. Spicer had not relied on any information from the department in denying the existence of an investigation targeting the president – which led a few hours later to an about-face by Mr. Spicer who was asked how he knew, definitively, that the president was not a target. Mr. Spicer conceded that the White House does not know whether the Justice Department has targeted the president in a Russia-related investigation.

“I said I’m not aware and we’re not aware and that’s why we want the House and Senate to do what the president has asked of them, to look into this,” Mr. Spicer said. “But no, we’re not aware.”

When reporters asked him to reconcile the difference between his statements, Mr. Spicer insisted that there was none.

Sean Spicer was in a difficult spot again. The deconstruction of the administrative state, with the help of the Russians, is a difficult business, and in Time, Massimo Calabresi notes the mixed results:

He has embraced a budget that would slash nondefense government-agency spending by $54 billion. He has delayed, suspended or reversed 90 regulations imposing government controls on everything from Wall Street to telecoms to hunters, according to an analysis by the New York Times. He has frozen federal hiring, and his allies on Capitol Hill have proposed reducing federal employees’ pensions. He says many of the nearly 2,000 open executive federal positions might be “unnecessary.”

On the other hand, Trump has promised to preserve and even bolster many of the federal government’s largest programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and the Pentagon, to name a colossal three. His immigration policies are a federal overreach in the eyes of some traditional antigovernment conservatives. And his comments on health care policy suggest he will be happy to sign a bill that leaves Washington neck-deep in the middle of America’s largest industry.

This is an odd sort of deconstruction:

When federal courts blocked his Executive Order banning refugees and travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries, Trump attacked. He said the “so-called” judge’s opinion was “ridiculous” and the federal judiciary “political.” The tantrum moved Trump’s own Supreme Court nominee, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, to criticize the President’s rhetoric. Trump’s Twitter backlashes have been interpreted as judo moves against elite power, or a CEO’s frustration that government can’t work like a business. Yet his senior aides say that every attack feeds into the same Trump strategy to shrink the federal government. It’s nothing personal, Bannon says. “He’s not doing that because he wants to disrupt the lives of bureaucrats,” he says. “It’s just the natural process of how one looks to dismantle part of a massive bureaucracy.”

He’s working on that:

So far in his young presidency, Trump has attacked his predecessor, the judicial branch, military commanders (they were to blame for the recent combat death of a Navy SEAL, Trump said), the intelligence agencies and the legacy of a century of legislative actions, executive decisions and court rulings. And he is only getting started, the senior White House official says.

And he has a strategy, even if a limited one:

For many of Trump’s followers, his declared war and the steps he has taken to wage it so far are all part of a job well done, exactly what they asked for. And his credibility with them is on the rise. “He was given a mandate with the election to go up there and correct and fix Washington and drain that swamp. That is exactly what I see him doing,” says Janice Westmoreland, 69, of Milledgeville, Ga.

But patient advocates worry about changes at the FDA, while environmentalists warn of the consequences of loosened regulations. “Millions of people around the country will be exposed to unhealthful air,” says Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. “It could literally be the difference between protecting public health and premature death.”

Still, this is war on the state:

Trump’s greatest foes are among his principal targets: the men and women of the U.S. government. Leaks have sprung all across the Trump Administration. Some, presumably from those alarmed by his foreign-policy agenda, have exposed Trump’s gaffe-filled conversations with foreign leaders. Other leaks, perhaps from those angry at Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community, have detailed the Russia investigation in ways that make Trump look bad.

To combat these, Trump reaches for Twitter. On Feb. 16, at 7:02 a.m., Trump tweeted a warning: “low-life leakers” will be caught.

More damaging confrontations arise when Trump goes after other parts of the government, namely the courts and agencies charged with law enforcement. It’s not clear that the President has a thorough understanding of checks and balances, and compared with most Presidents, he doesn’t surround himself with people who do. To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Trump went to war against the state with the army he had, business-school ideologues and website provocateurs like Bannon, rather than with the army he should have wanted: experienced, cold-blooded lawyers. No personnel in the White House will ever alter a core fact about Washington: power depends on knowing how to use the law even more than knowing how to change it.

That may be so, but Sarah Posner covers a more mundane aspect of this:

President Trump is failing to fully staff the federal government, subverting its ability to carry out its daily functions. While most Americans probably aren’t paying attention to the fact that the president has yet to nominate a undersecretary for food safety or a deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, his ongoing failure to fill vacancies will become increasingly visible as federal agencies are unable to carry out their missions or even perform basic daily tasks to serve the public.

Adding to the alarm over unfilled high-level posts are new reports about Trump’s refusal to approve Cabinet secretaries’ staffing requests and his quiet installation of a motley array of his allies in supposedly temporary positions that do not require Senate approval.

The upshot of what is happening right now is this: Trump is putting the entire government – and the American people’s trust in it – at risk, by appointing cronies and conspiracy theorists to vaguely defined positions, and leaving hundreds of crucial posts vacant.

This is the deconstruction of the administrative state by bits and pieces:

For example: A crisis is unfolding at the State Department, where dysfunction is so severe that three Democratic senators have warned Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson that his agency “appears unable to respond to the myriad of foreign policy challenges facing our nation.”

Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post tracker, which keeps tabs on the vacancies in positions that do require Senate confirmation, there are 512 posts for which Trump has failed to put forth a nominee, including 111 positions at the State Department and 50 at the Defense Department.

What’s more, as Jonathan Swan reports, the president is denying political appointees’ requests to hire their own staff, paralyzing the ability of multiple agencies to function, and leaving them “operating in a climate of distrust.” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, for example, was reportedly told by the president that he could hire staff “as long as they’re our people.”

Then there’s the startling new report from ProPublica that shows what happens when team Trump hires “our people.” According to the report, Trump has been quietly staffing up agencies with mysterious “beachhead teams” of supposedly temporary appointees that “have operated largely in the shadows, with the White House declining to publicly reveal their identities.”

The list of about 400 employees includes three that ProPublica has dubbed “The Breitbart Wing.” One of them is Curtis Ellis, a columnist for the far-right site WorldNetDaily, and now a special assistant to the secretary at the Labor Department. In response to an inquiry by ProPublica about what his position entailed, Ellis refused to say.

As for the State Department, Peter Van Buren notes this:

What if Trump decided America doesn’t need State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable, deconstruct and defund it?

The question is not theoretical. Trump wants to cut government, shift money to infrastructure and other proposed programs, and views military force, or its threat, as a primary tool of global problem-solving. Never a favorite of conservatives, State seems an easy target for Trump. But he will quickly find out he’ll need State to keep the lights on at embassies and consulates, and find some way to process visas. After that, there is a lot to cut few will miss.

While we can’t see into Trump’s mind, we may be able to gauge his intentions. Things do not look good at State. The department didn’t hold a regular press briefing in January or February, nor has Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answered questions in public. There may be little to talk about – a bad sign in these first 100 days. The briefings are also a tool to get America’s broader foreign policy message out to the globe, and for now that message is that no one is home at State.

Tillerson wasn’t present, as is typical, at several White House meetings with foreign leaders, and has taken only two short trips abroad.

The deconstruction continues:

Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or virtually via demands for information. State’s long hallways, which should be abuzz as new faces arrive with policy initiatives, and career staff work to bring them up to date on existing issues, are instead pretty quiet places.

Meanwhile, Trump has proposed devastating cuts to State’s budget, already only about one percent of federal spending. The administration has left many of the 64 special representative and other ambassador-level domestic positions empty, with no sign anyone will fill them soon. Many of the jobs were already under scrutiny by Congress during Obama’s time, and the current administration is unlikely to defend them.

Tillerson also laid off a number of his own staff, some of whom were Obama-era holdovers, and has not rushed to replace them. These vacancies may show Trump’s intent to not rely on State for foreign policy opinion.

And then there was today:

Mexico’s top diplomat came to Washington Thursday for meetings with the U.S. government, sidestepping the normal channels and heading straight for the White House.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray met at the White House with President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, along with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, a top financial aide, the Mexican government announced.

Striking in its absence from that announcement was any mention of a meeting with officials from the State Department.

It is customary for foreign secretaries from all nations to be received by their U.S. counterpart when in Washington, currently Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But when asked whether any sessions were scheduled at the State Department, the spokesman, Mark Toner, said he didn’t know Videgaray was in town.

No one told Tillerson. The deconstruction of the administrative state continues.

Jacques Derrida wasn’t talking about this at all – unless he was. Words have meaning only because of contrast-effects with other words. The actual words mean nothing in and of themselves – and we know the operative words here. “Make America Great Again.” Context is everything. Those words don’t mean what people think they mean. There’s something new here.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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