For many in government, Trump’s antagonistic relationship to facts is no longer just a matter of politics. It now affects day-to-day governance. One afternoon in February, James Schwab, the spokesman for the San Francisco office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confronted a dilemma. The mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf, had infuriated the White House by warning undocumented residents of a forthcoming sweep. Jeff Sessions accused her of sabotage, saying, “ice failed to make eight hundred arrests that they would have made if the mayor had not acted as she did.” That figure became an instant talking point on cable news. And, in comments the next day, Trump elevated the eight hundred to “close to a thousand people.”
At the ice office in San Francisco, Schwab knew that the numbers were nonsense. Internally, the agency had projected that, out of a thousand and twenty targets in the area, it would be lucky to find two hundred. (In the event, it arrested two hundred and thirty-two.) Schwab has been a government spokesman for more than a decade, first in the Army, where he served at the North Korean border, and then at nasa. “I contacted the headquarters and said, ‘How are we going to respond to this when we know this is inaccurate?’ ” he recalled. Schwab was told not to elaborate or correct the error; instead, he should refer reporters to existing statements. “That just shook me,” he told me.
Rather than aiding in the deception, Schwab resigned. “A lot of people in the federal government are holding on tight, trying to keep everything going properly,” he told me. “And people are fearful to say anything. I was fortunate enough to be able to quit my job and say something, but most people aren’t able to do that.” The White House has politicized work that was once insulated from interference, Schwab said. “We see that in the F.B.I. very publicly, and then I saw that at ice from the highest levels of the White House. Who knows where else it’s happening in the rest of the government.”
A White House that is intent on politicizing and falsifying information can achieve its objectives before other branches of government know enough to stop it. From 2002 to 2005, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson was Colin Powell’s chief of staff. He helped prepare the fateful speech to the U.N. Security Council in which Powell argued for the invasion of Iraq, saying, “Unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future.” Wilkerson is concerned that the Trump Administration is using “much the same playbook” to heighten a sense of menace around threats posed by Iran. “The talk has been building,” he told me. In December, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that there is “undeniable” evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to insurgents in Yemen. The claim was met with skepticism at the U.N., where other member states worry that the U.S. will use that charge to build a case for attacking Iran. “It just brought back the image of Powell holding that alleged anthrax bottle up at the U.N. Security Council,” Wilkerson told me. “It’s some of the same characters as in 2002 and 2003. History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.”
On May 8th, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, saying that it was “defective at its core.” Observers of the region warned of a potential crisis, but Trump expressed confidence in his intuition; he had opposed the accord since the campaign, and, he said, “I’ve been one hundred per cent right.” Nowrouzzadeh issued a brief statement, lamenting the withdrawal: “Our ability to influence or incentivize Iran’s nuclear decision-making in a manner favorable to U.S. interests will be severely undermined.” But State Department regulations prevented her from saying more, and most of her colleagues in negotiating the deal had left. The Trump advisers who favored preserving it had been effectively silenced; McMaster and Tillerson were gone, and Mattis had given up making the case.
In their place was John Bolton, a former State Department official who was recently appointed the national-security adviser after a long term as a Fox News backbencher. Bolton, known in Washington as a maximalist hawk, is arguably the most volatile addition to the Administration since its inception—an unrepentant advocate of the Iraq War who has also argued for regime change in Iran and in North Korea. “He lied repeatedly during his time at State,” Wilkerson told me. In 2002, when Bolton was the department’s top arms-control official, he planned to accuse Cuba of developing a secret biological-weapons program. When a lower-ranking intelligence official, Christian Westermann, spoke up to say that the accusation was unsupportable, Bolton tried to have him fired, telling his boss that he wouldn’t take orders from a “mid-level munchkin.”
To Wilkerson, Bolton’s arrival at the center of American national security is alarming. He recalled an encounter in 2002, when Bolton was publicly calling for Bush to confront North Korea. At the time, Wilkerson, who had served thirty-one years in the Army, cautioned Bolton that an attack on Seoul would result in enormous casualties. “John stops me mid-sentence and says, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t do casualties and things like that. That’s your bailiwick, ’ ” Wilkerson told me. “The man has no comprehension of the young men and women that have to carry out his goddam wars.” He continued, “He thinks it’s right to shape a narrative that’s false, so long as that narrative is leading to a ‘better’ purpose.”
During Trump’s march to Washington, he framed his mission as nothing less than regime change: America’s capital was a defeated empire in need of occupation. In the months after the Inauguration, as I watched that rhetoric turn to action, the tactics and personae started to remind me of another experience with regime change. As a reporter embedded with the Marines, I arrived in Baghdad in April, 2003, on the day that Saddam’s statue fell. I covered Iraq off and on for two years, a period in which the U.S. occupation was led from the Green Zone, a fortified enclave in the country’s capital, where Americans lived and worked in a sanctum of swimming pools and black-market Scotch. The Green Zone—officially, the home of the Coalition Provisional Authority—functioned as an extension of the White House, led by political appointees, staffed by civil servants, and attended by waiters in bow ties and paper hats. It was Iraq as the war planners had imagined it would be: orderly, on-message, and driven by the desire to remake the country in the name of capitalism and democracy.
After a year, the Green Zone had acquired another connotation, as a byword for disastrous flaws in the invasion: the failure to stop looters or to restore Iraq’s electricity; the decision to disband the Iraqi Army; the blindness to a growing resistance to the occupation. As the problems accumulated, so did the vacant offices in the Green Zone, because people in Washington were unwilling to join. The Administration turned, more than ever, to loyalists. Officials screening new American prospects sometimes asked whether they had voted for Bush and how they saw Roe v. Wade. A cohort of recent college grads, recruited because they had applied for jobs at the Heritage Foundation, were put in charge of Iraq’s national budget. The rebuilding of the stock market was entrusted to a twenty-four-year-old. “They wanted to insure lockstep political orientation,” Wilkerson recalled. “And what we got out of that was a lockstep-stupid political orientation.”
In the outside world, the mistakes were well documented. But inside the Green Zone the lights and air-conditioning were always on, there was no unemployment, and no one debated America’s role in Iraq. It was rhetoric over reality (“Mission Accomplished!”), and appearances mattered most: the press office distributed rosy, misleading statistics and obscured the dismal progress in restoring electricity and recruiting new police. The philosophy of governance—defined by loyalty, hostile to expertise, and comfortable with lies—created a disaster, even as its adherents extolled American values. Those who recognized the self-delusion and incompetence began referring to the Green Zone as the Emerald City.
The early mistakes in Iraq were like land mines sown in the soil. They continued erupting for years, in the form of division and decay. Similarly, the mistakes that the Trump Administration has made are likely to multiply: the dismantling of the State Department; the denigration of the civil service; the exclusion of experts on Iran and climate change; the fictional statistics about undocumented immigrants; and the effort to squelch dissent across the government. Absent a radical change, the Administration has no mechanism for self-correction. It will not get normal; it will get worse.
Trump is less impeded than ever, a fact that impresses even those he has mocked and spurned. Stephen Bannon (who Trump said had “lost his mind”) recently told me, “He is unchained. 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. He’s got shit he’s got to get done, and he’s just going to get it done.”
Midway through its second year, Trump’s White House is at war within and without, racing to banish the “disloyals” and to beat back threatening information. Bit by bit, the White House is becoming Trump’s Emerald City: isolated, fortified against nonbelievers, entranced by its mythmaker, and constantly vulnerable to the risks of revelation. ♦