What is 'deep state' and is a shadowy network of Obama holdovers undermining Donald Trump?

Chris Graham
President Barack Obama casts a shadow on the wall at the White House  - AP

Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, didn't reject the idea that a "deep state" may be working to undermine Donald Trump on Friday, as right-wing media fanned theories of a shadowy network working against the president.

When asked if the White House suspected there was such a thing as "the deep state" resisting the new administration, Mr Spicer referred to former President Barack Obama’s two terms in office: "I think there’s no question when you have eight years of one party in office that stays in government [they’re] affiliated with, joined [to] and continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration. 

.@hunterw asks Sean Spicer if the White House believes a "deep state" is working to undermine Trump pic.twitter.com/IWhgeUhFzN

— Yahoo News (@YahooNews) March 10, 2017

“I don’t think it should come as any surprise that there are people burrowed into government during eight years of the last administration and may have believed in that agenda and want to continue to seek it. I don’t think that should come as a surprise to anyone."

His comments came a day after Fox News's Sean Hannity, a supporter of Mr Trump, called for a "purge" of "deep-state Obama holdovers."

On Friday, Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General, abruptly asked the remaining 46 chief federal prosecutors left over from the Obama administration to resign. While the timing prompted speculation this was part of such a "purge", officials have rejected the claims.

But where did the term come from and why is it being used now?

What is the 'deep state'?

The term refers to a secretive network within government that operates outside the democratic system. It originated in 1950s Turkey, where it was used to describe a clandestine group of individuals across government, linked to retired generals and mafia groups. According to the Economist, it purportedly worked to maintain secularism through "sponsored killings and engineered riots" without the consent of the country's leaders or top military officials. 

The New York Times used the term in reference to Turkey in 1997, defining it as "a set of obscure forces that seem to function beyond the reach of the law".

It has since been deployed when describing influential groups within authoritarian  governments in countries like Egypt and Russia.  

Fear of the "deep state" still resonates in modern day Turkey. It "became such common currency that it allowed (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan's [ruling] government to cripple Turkey's democratic checks and balances, including media and courts,” Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Atlantic. "I think Erdogan's agenda was not eliminating it, it was taking it over."

The term has gained popularity in the US in recent years, particularly in reference to the intelligence community. When Edward Snowden's leaks revealed details of mass surveillance conducted by the US, one Wall Street Journal opinion writer wondered if it was being carried out by  "a deep state consisting of our intelligence and security agencies". 

It has since been used to describe the series of leaks that led to the resignation of Michael Flynn, Mr Trump's former National Security Adviser, and that have plagued his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Donald Trump has attacked the leaks that led to the resignation of Michael Flynn - Credit: AFP

Who's using the term?

Not Mr Trump. While his press secretary has not ruled out the existence of a "deep state" working against the president, Mr Trump has not yet used the term - despite his repeated tirades against those leaking information.  

However, many figures in the White House are reportedly using the term.  Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's chief strategist and former editor of Breitbart News, has spoken with Mr Trump at length about his view that the “deep state” is a direct threat to his presidency, the Washington Post reported. 

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon reportedly believes a "deep state" is working against Mr Trump - Credit: EPA

In the media, Hannity has been one of the loudest voices to warn of the dangers of a "deep state". On Thursday, he called for Mr Trump to “purge” the executive branch of Obama-era bureaucrats and appointees.

Comparing the situation to former President Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War, he said: "He fired over 75 percent, nearly 1,200 people out of 1,500 bureaucrats that worked in the executive branch that President Abraham Lincoln feared could be disloyal. It’s time now for President Trump to follow Abraham Lincoln’s example and fire anyone and everyone who was actively working against him in government."

Breitbart News has also published many stories about "deep state-gate". One article last month, headlined  "Insiders: Obama Holdover 'Shadow Government' Plotting to Undermine Trump", cited "several intelligence insiders" in saying that Mr Flynn's resignation was the "first great success" of this shadowy campaign.

Last month, Republican congressman Thomas Massie told CNN he disagreed with "a lot of people here in Washington and maybe some supporters of Trump who say that this is an effort by the Obama administration to undermine the Trump administration." "I'm worried it's something deeper than that," Massie said. "I'm concerned that it's an effort on those who want a provocation with Russia or other countries to sort of push the president in the direction. So I don't think it's Trump vs. Obama, I think it's really the Deep State vs. the president, the duly elected president."

But it's not just those on the political right who are using the term. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who reported on Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, has also deployed the phrase recently. "The Deep State unleashed its tawdriest and most aggressive assault yet on Trump," he wrote in January in The Intercept, following revelations that Russia could have compromising information on Mr Trump.  

A recent article in the London Review of Books also discussed "the dangerous fantasy" among liberals that "the deep state might rescue us" from a Trump government. 

So is there a "deep state" at work?

Whether you believe the existence of a "deep state" working to undermine the US president depends on how you define and use the term.

Nicole Hemmer, an academic at the University of Virginia and the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre, says the phrase has been more rhetorical than descriptive.

"Are there ways people within the intelligence community and federal bureaucracy are trying to slow down the Trump administration? Sure," she told ABC News. "Is that some shadowy government that secretly runs the country? Not at all."

Many experts say it is wrong to use the term, saying the political climate in the US cannot be compared to regimes such as in Turkey.

"[The White House] is taking a sexy term that means something very real in an environment in which there has been a lot of violence associated with this term and we’re applying it to stuff that’s pretty normal in terms of a large bureaucracy," Nate Schenkaan, a project director at Freedom House, told Time.  "These are state employees and they have been implementing their jobs faithfully for a long time."

Timur Kuran, a professor at Duke University, also rejected the idea, saying a "deep state" requires an organised network. "[Leaks are] evidence of people upset with the bureaucracy and upset with individual policies, but doesn’t in itself point to an organisational hierarchy to systematically undermine the government,” Professor Kuran told the magazine.

The five types of fake news

The rise of a "deep state" can be likened to another buzz term - "fake news". The latter phrase has been co-opted by politicians and commentators to mean anything they disagree with - rendering the term meaningless. Mr Trump said recently "any negative polls are fake news".

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes