President Donald Trump is (sometimes) more predictable than people attribute to him. When he feels strengthened or especially hurt, he takes dangerous, often unprecedented steps to undermine supervision and undermine control and balance. When there is a public outcry, he withdraws for a while, but when the coast appears clear or other stories give him media coverage, he starts again. The pattern has accelerated this year as key government guards have been fired to prevent a number of recent abuses.
Trump’s retirement of inspectors general is particularly outrageous, and he has done it almost weekly for the past six weeks. It flushes the government of independent inspectors general and in some cases replaces it with partisan loyalty.
The dismissals of government watchdogs on Friday evening have become an important part of the Trump narrative. Three weeks ago, the president announced a replacement for the acting inspector general of the Ministry of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm. Trump angered Grimm in April after posting a report on the lack of essential medical supplies. On late May 15, he announced his intention to fire State Inspector General Steve Linick, who was reportedly investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for possible use of government employees for personal errands and possible misconduct related to arms sales to Saudi Arabia . Pompeo himself recommended that Linick be dismissed, and Trump agreed to the request – an apparently blatant conflict of interest. (Indeed, Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, co-chair of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, suggested that the situation needs further clarification.)
Also on May 15, the President disabled serving Inspector General of Transportation, Mitch Behm, who was reportedly investigating Secretary Elaine Chao for possible preferential treatment for projects in Kentucky, the state represented by her husband, the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
The actions followed the dismissal of Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of Intelligence, in April, who informed Congress of the complaint against whistleblowers in Ukraine that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump also incapacitated Glenn Fine, the then Department of Defense at the time, who had been selected by his colleagues in the IG community to oversee the trillions of dollars spent on pandemic aid. The president replaced him with a loyalist.
There are 74 inspector general offices across the federal government, of the 12 established by the 1978 Inspector General Act. Presidents sometimes abound with inspectors-general who can make their lives difficult – including President Barack Obama. But former presidents reacted passively aggressively. Trump was aggressive, which is new and dangerous. Trump has left many positions as Inspector General vacant to instead be filled by incumbent officials who are less independent and easier to replace, and has treated reports from these watchdogs as attacks rather than a guide to improving government performance. The recent moves significantly increase his attack.
While Trump’s aversion to accountability stems from the beginning of his candidacy, Trump appears to have intensified his war against checks and balances after a bare bipartite Senate majority cleared him of impeachment in February. Trump didn’t let go of a grudge and quickly got to work after the trial. He dismissed and transferred national security officers – such as former National Security Council officials Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, former US ambassador to the European Union – who did not. t carry water for him. He also publicly pressured Attorney General William Barr to push for a reduced sentence for his longtime friend and ally Roger Stone.
A few months later, Barr took another shocking move under the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with a handpicked US interim lawyer – and without the involvement of prosecutors – Barr dismissed the prosecution of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, a close ally of Trump, despite Flynn’s multiple-court admissions.
Perhaps more alarmingly, the president and his allies endorsed a fictional scandal called “Obamagate,” claiming that officials who properly investigated the behavior of Flynn and others did something scandalous and criminal. We should avoid the temptation to conclude that this is just another attempt to distract from harmful coronavirus headlines. It may be that there are legitimate small-scale misconduct findings, such as an inappropriate leak, and that the “scandal” narrative is then used to try to make others, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, part of a larger one tare. if not supported at all, conspiracy.
It seems crazy to imagine that a president would go further and use the law enforcement powers of the U.S. government to investigate and prosecute political opponents – at least after President Richard Nixon. But it is worth considering whether we should even trust that this President and his allies will not go there. The majority of senators have done little to mitigate its escalating attacks on democracy.
The President and his attorney general have already used United States law enforcement powers to protect the President’s friends and allies from prosecutors’ rulings. This attorney general, who has always sought to use his authority to strengthen the president politically, has, despite repeated findings by courts and watchdogs that the investigation had a legitimate basis, has already launched new investigations into the origins of the Russia investigation.
That brings us back to the topic of inspectors general. Trump has systematically removed those who have the power to oversee his administration. Then on what basis do we really have to doubt that he would kidnap law enforcement to pursue his enemies?
We are not powerless against these broadsides. Congress can initiate investigations, hold hearings, and adopt new safeguards for watchdogs and whistleblowers. The HEROES Act passed by the House of Representatives last week includes additional protection for inspectors-general, and some members of Congress are discussing even stronger measures. The pandemic is all-encompassing, so Congress is likely to focus on these democracy issues only when it hears from constituents that people are attentive and want them to act. This is where the Americans come in.
The president has shown his hand, his closest allies have spoken, and action against democratic controls and considerations has intensified. It is time for all Americans to pay attention – and ask for action before it’s too late.