Trump’s Trolls Are Waging War on America’s Civil Servants
Alt-right bloggers are singling out government employees deemed hostile to the president’s agenda.
On June 11, alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich published an article attacking an assistant to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, claiming the previously low-profile civil servant wanted to “sabotage” President Donald Trump.
The piece described Eric Ciaramella as “pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia” and alleged, with no evidence, that he was possibly responsible for high-level leaks. The response to the piece included online threats of violence against Ciaramella, which contributed to his decision to leave his job at the National Security Council a few weeks early, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
Although the harassment was not the only factor, one of the two sources said they “distinctly got the impression” that the departure was premature, partially because of “right-wing” harassment.
Ciaramella is not alone. Cernovich, who claims his Twitter feed receives over 100 million views every month, has been relentless in his criticism of McMaster and those around him. Cernovich’s writings and tweets have included false information, but sometimes they include details that only someone on the inside could know. For example, his tweets about Ciaramella were so specific that they documented meetings and lunches the NSC staffer had with certain people.
After Ciaramella left the NSC, Cernovich turned his attacks on Twitter against his prospective successor, who has not been publicly announced.
Career civil servants often endure stressful working conditions, but in the Trump White House, some of them face online trolling from alt-right bloggers who seek to portray them as clandestine partisans plotting to sabotage the president’s agenda. The online attacks often cite information that appears to be provided by unnamed White House officials or Trump loyalists.
The trend has unnerved the career intelligence analysts, diplomats, security experts, and military officers who are accustomed to operating outside the political arena. Coupled with White House talking points accusing government employees of jeopardizing the country’s security through leaks to the media, the online abuse threatens to damage morale and politicize institutions long seen as impartial and above partisan combat.
“It’s singling people out and then publicly engaging in character assassination,” said Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA officer who served in the agency for over 30 years and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It will certainly send an intimidating effect throughout the bureaucracy.”
Federal law is designed to shield career government employees from political or other retaliation unrelated to their performance on the job, but the administration has significant leeway to sideline them. Some previous presidents, most notably Richard Nixon, sought to undercut perceived political opponents in and outside of government, but the public harassment of civil servants by the current White House or its allies is something new, according to former government officials.
Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European Affairs on the NSC during the Obama administration, and was Ciaramella’s boss for two years there, said he’s never seen a time of such attacks against civil servants. “In my professional recollection,” he said, “it’s unprecedented.”
There may have been times when one person was singled out, but the “systemic hostility to what the alt-right calls the ‘deep state’ is misplaced,” Kupchan said, “and it’s dangerous.”
Attacking the worker bees
Before the 2016 election, Cernovich wrote self-help books for men who wanted to discover their inner “alpha male.” He found a larger audience, however, with his fervent pro-Trump, Hillary Clinton-bashing online blogs, tweets, and memes. Tweeting from his home in Southern California, he helped spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and has threatened to smear members of the Trump White House if Stephen Bannon is ever removed.
Those whom Cernovich targets often face a barrage of online threats and harassment from his followers. Last week, for example, he focused on Andrew Kaczynski, an investigative journalist at CNN. Kaczynski had written about the anonymous Reddit user who created a video of Trump wrestling a figure with CNN’s logo superimposed on his head.
Cernovich doctored a photo so it appeared that Kaczynski was wearing a Nazi SS uniform. The Daily Beast reported that Kaczynski’s parents and wife “had received around 50 harassing phone calls each by Wednesday.”
Still, members of Trump’s inner circle, and even his family members, have endorsed Cernovich’s posts. The White House has given him press credentials and he says he gets his information from West Wing officials, a claim supported by what he’s able to report and when he’s able to report it. For example, he warned his followers on April 6 that the White House had decided to launch military action against Syria, following the chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, before the U.S. missile strikes occurred. “We do have time to stop it,” Cernovich told his audience at 7:40 p.m.
In June, Cernovich turned his attention to Ciaramella, the NSC staffer. “Nothing in his résumé indicates that Ciaramella will put America First. His entire life arc indicates he will sabotage Trump and leak information to the press whenever possible,” Cernovich wrote, in an unsubstantiated allegation.
Though he concedes it’s “unproven,” Cernovich said that “some suspect” Ciaramella leaked the details of Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. During the meeting, the president said firing FBI Director James Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him and that Comey was a “real nut job.” Trump also reportedly disclosed to Lavrov classified intelligence about the Islamic State provided by Israel. Both stories sent the White House into a tailspin.
On Twitter, Cernovich’s followers and Trump loyalists responded to the piece about Ciaramella by calling for Trump to fire McMaster. Cernovich’s followers made death threats against Ciaramella, with calls for him to be shot between the eyes, as well as demands for his imprisonment.
Shortly after Cernovich made the allegations, Ciaramella gave notice at the NSC.
After his departure, Ciaramella, who was on loan to the White House, returned to his parent agency. Career civil servants from the Pentagon, the State Department, or one of the intelligence agencies routinely serve tours on the NSC.
Ciaramella’s NSC stint started during the Obama administration. Following Trump’s inauguration, he stayed on at the request of the Trump transition team, working as acting senior director for European and Russian affairs. After McMaster picked Russia expert Fiona Hill to permanently fill that position, he asked Ciaramella to join the front office staff for the remainder of his NSC tour, which was scheduled to end in late June.
Officials who worked closely with Ciaramella adamantly defend his professionalism and nonpartisan stance. He’s a “seasoned pro” and “one of the best that the civil service has,” said Kupchan, his former boss at the NSC.
Now a professor at Georgetown University, Kupchan described civil servants, like Ciaramella, as “the worker bees of the federal government. They want to serve the nation, and they care deeply about the issues they’re working on.”
Kupchan said he brought Ciaramella on board in 2015 to work on Ukraine. “He did such an impressive job, I asked him to help share the burden on the counter-ISIL portfolio,” and specifically Turkey’s role in that fight, he said.
Yet Cernovich falsely tweeted on June 14 that Ciaramella had been “fired” because it was revealed that he had been leaking to the press, a statement that colleagues deny and that Cernovich corrected. On July 2, he tweeted that Ciaramella had quit because of his article.
NSC spokesman Michael Anton said Ciaramella did not leave earlier than planned. “He left when his scheduled detail was up,” he wrote in an email.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fact that Ciaramella was made acting director for European and Russian affairs and later brought up to serve as McMaster’s executive assistant demonstrates how well he performed.
“H.R. thought he did a good job. Everybody was happy with his performance,” the official said. Referring to Ciaramella’s stint in the sensitive post of executive assistant to McMaster, the official said, “He wouldn’t have been there if he weren’t trusted.”
But the official said there was no evidence that someone in the White House was feeding material to online bloggers and that the information appearing online could easily have come from an array of sources outside the White House.
Numerous visitors to the White House pass through the West Wing, where the NSC is located and where the executive assistant to the national security advisor handles numerous phone calls, the official said. As a result, Ciaramella’s arrival or departure from the NSC would have been known to “probably hundreds if not thousands of people inside and outside the government,” the administration official said.
Cernovich acknowledges that he’s going after McMaster’s staff. “Personnel is policy,” he wrote in response to queries for this article.
“The NSC and State are the most interesting beats to cover, because the hiring and firing decisions within State and NSC will determine whether America enters another disastrous ground war, as H.R. McMaster and his mentor David Petraeus desire,” he wrote. “McMaster has stacked the NSC with pro-war globalists, some of whom came from the Obama administration and others who were ‘Never Trump’ers.’”
In response to questions about some of his statements that have proven false, and whether he allows people to respond to his allegations, Cernovich responded by saying: “You are a spokeswoman for globalist warmongers. You are the mouthpiece of death and destruction. Your fraudulent hit piece on me validates the strength of my work.”
Cernovich is not alone in going after NSC and other government staffers. Outlets, including Breitbart News and the Conservative Review, went on a rampage against government employees and so-called Obama holdovers in the early months of the Trump administration, as first documented by Politico in March.
State Department officials took some of the hardest hits. Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who started her career in the George W. Bush administration and who helped negotiate President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, was moved from her position on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff after critical right-wing media stories.
Nowrouzzadeh is a career civil service employee who has served “with distinction” for nearly 12 years, said Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones. “Sahar has an outstanding reputation in the Department and we expect her to continue to do valuable work in furtherance of U.S. national security,” he said in an email.
The Conservative Review also accused Alan Eyre, director of the Office of Middle East and Asia at the State Department and a career diplomat, of being a “leftist” who was anti-Trump. In another article, the publication said Anne Patterson, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, “fully embraced the policies of President Obama that aligned with radical Islamic actors and alienated Israel.” Defense Secretary James Mattis wanted to nominate Patterson to be his undersecretary for policy but faced resistance from the White House.
Conservative outlets also attacked officials who guided the White House’s Israel policy, including NSC diplomat Yael Lempert and Michael Ratney, in charge of Israeli-Palestinian issues at the State Department. Lempert was accused of undermining Trump’s positions toward Israel, despite her negotiating a $38 billion deal to supply military hardware to Israel over 10 years. Pro-Israel conservatives slammed Ratney for his ties to former Secretary of State John Kerry. Lemper departed in April, less than a month after it was reported she’d be staying.
The attacks don’t stop with career civil servants or perceived “Obama holdovers.” They also include people hired as political appointees by the Trump administration. A common theme underlying the online attacks is a perceived alignment with McMaster.
Longtime Trump confidant and former campaign advisor Roger Stone, along with Alex Jones, who pushes conspiracy theories via his site Infowars, have attacked Hill, who was hired by McMaster to be senior director for European and Russian affairs on the NSC. Before joining the administration, Hill worked at the Brookings Institution, and earlier served as a national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.
In their video, Stone and Jones castigated Hill as a “mole” for billionaire investor George Soros. She “has been on the Soros payroll and the payroll of the Open Society Institute,” Stone said on Jones’s show.
The online trolling fits within a broader idea pushed by Trump supporters in Washington and the media — the threat of a “deep state,” or the idea that an unseen group of people inside government are working against civilian leaders. The term has often been used in countries such as Egypt or Turkey, where members of the military and others have orchestrated coups.
In Washington, the term “deep state” has been adopted in recent months to refer to the alleged threat from disloyal civil servants conspiring to harm the administration. “We are talking about the emergence of a deep state led by Barack Obama, and that is something that we should prevent,” Iowa Rep. Steve King said in March.
The online attacks on the reputations of particular civil servants “has a very Nixonian quality to it,” Riedel, of Brookings, said.
“What strikes me is there is another deep state that’s being fed information to wage war on the professional cadre.”
A new target for online bashing is Megan Badasch, the NSC’s deputy executive secretary. Cernovich has accused her of leaking to the press and working with McMaster to orchestrate the departure of Tera Dahl, who was serving as the NSC’s deputy chief of staff. Dahl, a former Breitbart columnist, is taking a new job in the Trump administration, a move that was in the works for a while.
Badasch is no Obama holdover; she has spent her career working in Republican politics, on Capitol Hill, and on presidential campaign teams. She was hired by the Trump campaign and worked on his transition team. When the White House sought to clamp down on leaks early in the administration, Badasch implemented a policy to restrict the distribution of documents within the government.
One big mark against Badasch, according to Cernovich: She was seen eating lunch with her colleague, Ciaramella.
This article was published jointly with Just Security.
This report was updated on July 13 with a statement from the State Department.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sahar Nowrouzzadeh was removed from the NSC. She was instead moved from the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce