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Civil Servants Facing 'Deep, Dark Conspiracy Theories' In Trump Era

Trump's whistleblower has been branded a member of the so-called "deep state" by conservative media. It's a type of attack that has become common in the Trump era.

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Transcript:

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, President Trump and conservative media have been trying to undermine the whistleblower whose complaint led to the whole impeachment inquiry. They've called the whistleblower a traitor and a member of the so-called deep state. This is the latest and perhaps most high-profile example of campaigns to discredit career civil servants. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, longtime Washington observers say these kinds of attacks are increasing.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: After 43 years in the State Department, Anne Patterson got nominated for a top job at the Pentagon. She kept a low profile all those years, working under both Democrats and Republicans, and she was ready to serve under Trump.

JERRY FEIERSTEIN: She was never a Never Trump-er. She never spoke out.

ALLYN: That's Jerry Feierstein, who worked with Patterson in the State Department. He watched Patterson's nomination unleash a torrent of articles and conservative media aimed at smearing his onetime colleague. He says Patterson saw the new job as an honorable way to cap a long career as a foreign service officer.

FEIERSTEIN: In return, you know, just got these, you know, kind of nasty, baseless attacks.

ALLYN: It all started when Patterson was ambassador to Egypt. In keeping with U.S. policy, she publicly supported the country's first free elections. Here she is talking to the press in Cairo in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNE PATTERSON: The process was transparent, critically important. There were a number of American observers here, and they said it was a very well-run election. So...

ALLYN: That democratic process led to the election of President Mohamed Morsi. He was the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a controversial pick at the time, and it came up again when Patterson was nominated. That's because the Brotherhood is an Islamist group Trump wants to designate as a terrorist organization, even though there's no evidence linking it to violence against Americans. As ambassador, Patterson didn't weigh in on who should win the Egyptian elections. But that didn't stop one conservative publication from calling her the Muslim Brotherhood stooge. Feierstein says he and others at the State Department were appalled.

FEIERSTEIN: The allegations that she was somehow pro-Muslim Brotherhood, of course, those were just ridiculous. And I think that we all regretted that she had to go through that.

ALLYN: Shortly after the headlines flew around the Internet, Patterson's nomination was withdrawn, and she eventually left government. More and more conservative news outlets are singling-out individual federal government employees as politically biased or part of a quote, "deep state" that is trying to sabotage the Trump administration. And some of the alleged deep-staters are getting fired. A foreign service officer last year filed a complaint to the State Department's inspector general over the ousters. The IG's report examining whether staffers were pushed out over suspected Trump disloyalty is expected in the coming days.

NORM ORNSTEIN: What we've seen is a concerted effort to blow up government as we know it.

ALLYN: Norm Ornstein is with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

ORNSTEIN: It goes way beyond anything we've seen in previous administrations, whether it was Nixon, or Reagan, or either Bush or any Democrat.

ALLYN: Past administrations have gone after a perceived political enemies or tried to shrink the size of the bureaucracy, saying government is the problem. But experts say the latest wave of attacks are different.

ORNSTEIN: What's happened now is it's become a vehicle for deep, dark conspiracy theories of people inside government who are actively conspiring to try to do a coup, in effect, against the duly elected president of the United States.

ALLYN: Websites like Breitbart publish lists of Obama holdovers. Another site, Conservative Review, routinely does stories attempting to disgrace public servants. Former top government officials fear these virtual smear campaigns will turn into real-life harassment for some of the federal government's 2.8 million civilian workers. Harold Koh was the State Department's legal adviser under President Obama.

HAROLD KOH: They don't have bodyguards. They don't have security details. People can recognize them on the streets and scream at them or hassle them.

ALLYN: Feierstein, Patterson's former colleague, worries this is the new normal for career civil servants.

FEIERSTEIN: It's hard to believe that it's simply going to be everybody waking up from a bad dream and saying, nevermind, everything is OK.

ALLYN: As for Patterson, she's now a senior fellow at Yale University. She turned down an offer to be interviewed for this story. She was afraid her comments might whip up her online critics.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.