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‘People are scared’: Paranoia seizes Trump’s White House

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.

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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.

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“People are scared,” he said, adding that the Trump White House had become “a pretty hostile environment to work in.”

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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