A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies — inside their own government.
In interviews, nearly a dozen White House aides and federal agency staffers described a litany of suspicions: that rival factions in the administration are trying to embarrass them, that civil servants opposed to President Donald Trump are trying to undermine him, and even that a “deep state” of career military and intelligence officials is out to destroy them.
Aides are going to great lengths to protect themselves. They’re turning off work-issued smartphones and putting them in drawers when they arrive home from work out of fear that they could be used to eavesdrop. They’re staying mum in meetings out of concern that their comments could be leaked to the press by foes.
Many are using encrypted apps that automatically delete messages once they’ve been read, or are leaving their personal cellphones at home in case their bosses initiate phone checks of the sort that press secretary Sean Spicer deployed last month to try to identify leakers on his team.
It’s an environment of fear that has hamstrung the routine functioning of the executive branch. Senior advisers are spending much of their time trying to protect turf, key positions have remained vacant due to a reluctance to hire people deemed insufficiently loyal, and Trump’s ambitious agenda has been eclipsed by headlines surrounding his unproven claim that former President Barack Obama tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
One senior administration aide, who like most others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the degree of suspicion had created a toxicity that is unsustainable.
A White House official rejected the notion that there’s a culture of paranoia.
Spicer on Tuesday emphasized that cellphone checks are not White House policy and said that neither he nor others are still conducting them. “The only incident in which that occurred was limited to the one involving myself,” he said.
Trump has a history of overseeing pressure-cooker organizations rife with suspicion, setting up sophisticated surveillance in part to monitor employees at his properties, including at his campaign headquarters, where some campaign aides suspected their offices were bugged.
One widespread concern in the Trump White House: that career intelligence operatives are working to undermine the new president through a series of leaks of classified information.
Much of the suspicion is directed at the Central Intelligence Agency, which many Trump loyalists believe is targeting CIA skeptics who sit on the National Security Council. Some of them allege that the CIA was behind the damaging leaks to the press that culminated in the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in February and that the agency has pushed for the removal of other staffers.
They also believe the CIA exaggerated security clearance concerns that led to the removal of a top Flynn deputy, Robin Townley, from the NSC. Last week, another top NSC staffer who had drawn opposition from some within the CIA, intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was told he was being removed, only to have Trump overrule the decision after Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner intervened, two people familiar with the episode said.
Some rank-and-file White House aides, meanwhile, have become convinced that intelligence agents may be monitoring their phone calls, emails, and text messages. Those fears intensified last week when WikiLeaks released a trove of CIA documents outlining how the agency can break into phones and computers.
In an interview, one White House aide described the elaborate steps he was taking to shield himself. Once he gets home in the evening, he turns off his work phone and stores it in a drawer because, he said, he believes it could be used to listen to him even when it’s off. If he makes a call during off-hours, he uses a separate, personal phone in an adjoining room, where the stowed work device wouldn’t be able to pick up his voice as clearly.
The fact that so much sensitive information from the White House was making its way to news outlets, he said, has raised suspicions that national security officials are listening in.
“I’m paranoid,” said the aide. “Anything significant seems to be on the front page the next day.”
One prominent Republican strategist who is close to the administration marveled at the amount of sensitivity over phones. “It’s always a, ’you never know who’s listening’ kind of thing,” this person said. “It’s a general concern that people have over there.”
Some staffers have even expressed concern about messages that appear on digital faces of White House landline phones, indicating that calls might be monitored. The White House official, however, said those messages have been a feature of the building’s phone system for years.
Yet the perception among some staff that monitoring is widespread has engendered even greater suspicion and anxiety. “We’ve got strict instructions not to talk to talk to the press,” said one White House aide. “I assume I would get fired immediately.”
One senior aide said staffers have become almost obsessed by daily news accounts of palace intrigue and spend hours in the office dissecting them in hopes of deciphering who is dishing — and who is trying to hurt whom.
Another Republican who is close to the White House said junior-level staffers are simply “mimicking what they’re seeing at the top … Everyone at the top is so suspicious that it trickles down the org chart, so everyone has become paranoid and suspicious.”
The distrust, some contend, isn’t unfounded.
“I wouldn’t call it paranoia under the circumstances,” said a Republican who communicates with many administration aides through encrypted apps. “It’s not paranoia if people really are out to get you, and everybody actually is out to get everyone else.”
Many staffers say they don’t like the idea that supervisors — or anyone else — could have access to their emails. Some have taken to using secure messengers like Confide and Signal in order to communicate on their personal phones. One program gaining popularity within the administration is Wickr, which allows users to set an expiration time on how long an unread message can remain in a recipient’s inbox before it self-destructs.
The encryption programs can’t be accessed from White House-issued phones, which prevent users from downloading most apps. There are no restrictions on employees using encrypted apps on their personal phones, the White House official said, as long as they’re not being used to conduct official business.
The most stress, however, may be outside the West Wing, in executive branch agencies, where staffers worry about career bureaucrats who are hostile to Trump.
Fears grew on Friday, when Sid Bowdidge, a Trump appointee to the Department of Energy who had worked on the campaign, was ousted amid reports that he’d expressed anti-Muslim views and argued that Obama had relatives who were terrorists in Twitter posts from over a year ago.
In an interview, Bowdidge blamed the disclosure on an anti-Trump department staffer who had picked through his background. He called the incident “character assassination” and said Obama allies were sending a warning shot to Trump loyalists in agencies.
“A lot of these career folks were put in there over the last eight years, they’re Obama supporters,” he said. “By and large, they hate Trump.”
Spokespeople for the Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
To inoculate themselves, staffers at agencies have begun scrubbing their social media accounts for anything that could be perceived as controversial. They are also operating on the assumption that anything they say in the office could be leaked.
One agency aide said he had become particularly circumspect in meetings and was taking additional steps to protect himself, such as keeping his office door closed during the day. He has used his off-time to catalogue the Twitter and Facebook postings of co-workers who he suspects harbor anti-Trump views and could be a threat.
“I do think there’s a concerted effort to disrupt us,” the aide said. “We’re professional, we’re courteous. But it’s a one-way street. The [anti-Trump staffers] are out to hurt the administration, and you have to handle yourself accordingly.”
In recent days, the administration has given credence to the idea that Obama loyalists are working against them. When Spicer was asked during a briefing last week about the idea that a deep state is working to undermine the president, he did not reject the premise.
“I don’t think it should come as any surprise that there are people that burrowed into government during eight years of the last administration, and may have believed in that agenda and that to continue to seek it,” he said.
Obama White House veterans are skeptical.
Tommy Vietor, who was an NSC spokesman during the Obama years, rejected the current administration’s deep state concerns as “overstated and ridiculous.”
“The idea that there are career officials who are holdovers who may not agree with Trump is neither new nor remarkable,” he said. “That’s not the deep state.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.