President Donald Trump is (at times) more predictable than the people who give him credit. When he feels empowered or especially replaced, he takes dangerous, often unprecedented steps to put an end to oversight and break checks and balances. When there is a public uproar, he turns away, for a time, but when the coast seems clear or other stories give him media cover, he starts again. The pattern has been accelerated this year, by firing key government watchdogs to cover a string of recent abuses.
Trump’s departure from inspectors in general has been particularly stressful, and he has been doing this almost weekly for the last six weeks. He purged the government of independent inspectors general and, in some cases, replaced them with loyal partisans.
When he or she feels empowered or particularly agitated, he or she takes dangerous, often unprecedented steps to facilitate supervision.
Friday night’s pursuit of government watchdogs became a major part of Trump’s narrative. Three weeks ago, the president announced a replacement for the state inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm. Trump sued the Grimm in April after he issued a report on deficiencies in medical supplies. In late May 15, he announced his intention to fire State Department inspector general Steve Linick, who was reportedly investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for possible use by government staff for the personal mistakes and for potential affiliations connected with arms sales in Saudi Arabia. Pompeo himself recommended that Linick be released, and Trump joined the request – a seemingly dazzling conflict of interest. (In fact, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, co-chair of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, suggests that the situation requires further clarification.)
Also on May 15, the president moved the Transportation Department’s acting inspector general, Mitch Behm, who is reportedly investigating Secretary Elaine Chao for a possible selection of projects in Kentucky, the state’s Senate representative of her husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The actions followed April’s firing on Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, who alerted Congress about Ukraine’s whistleblower complaint that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump also left Glenn Fine, then acting acting inspector general of the Defense Department, selected by his peers in the IG community to oversee the handling of trillions of dollars in pandemic relief; the president replaced him with a loyalist.
There are 74 inspector general offices throughout the federal government, from 12 established by the Inspector General Law of 1978. Presidents occasionally lead inspectors general, who can make their lives worse – including President Barack Obama. But past presidents have been passive-aggressive in their responses; Trump has been aggressive on the inside, which is new and dangerous. Trump left many inspector general positions, filled, instead, by acting officials, who were less free and could be replaced more easily, and he treated reports from these watchmen as attacks instead of guidelines for improving government performance. Recent departures have taken his attack to a major level.
While avoiding Trump on accountability dates at the start of his candidacy, Trump seems to have put his war on checks and balances after a nude, partisan majority in the Senate released him on impeachment charges when February. Never allowing a great deal of resentment, Trump quickly set to work after the trial, firing and moving of national security officials – such as former National Security officials Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, the former ambassador of the United States to the European Union – made ‘bring water for him. He also publicly told Attorney General William Barr to push a reduced sentence for his longtime friend and ally Roger Stone.
A few months later, under the cover of the COVID-19 sensation, Barr took another shocking step. Working with a temporary U.S. attorney general – and without the involvement of career prosecutors – Barr moved to deny the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a close ally of Trump, even Flynn has admitted his criminal offense in court on several occasions.
Perhaps even more worryingly, the president and his allies are spearheading a fabricated scandal called “Obamagate,” asserting that officials are investigating the behavior of Flynn and others something annoying and criminal. We should avoid the temptation to conclude that this is another attempt to interfere with the damage to coronavirus heads. There may be legitimate discoveries of minor offenses, such as an improper leak, and that the “scandal” narrative will be used to try others, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, as part of a larger, if whole unsupported, conspiracy.
It would seem crazy to think of any president who would go ahead and use U.S. law enforcement powers to investigate and prosecute political opponents – at least President Richard Nixon. But it is worth considering whether we should have any confidence at all that this president and his allies will not go there. The majority of senators have created little tension with his rising attack on democracy.
The president and his attorney general have used U.S. law enforcement powers to protect the president’s friends and allies against prosecution of career prosecutors. This attorney general, who is always eager to use his authority to strengthen the political president, has launched new investigations into the origins of Russia’s investigation despite repeated findings by courts and watchdogs that investigation has a valid basis.
Which brings us back to the issue of general inspector Trump’s systematic removal of those in charge of his administration. What is the basis then that we must really doubt that he has hijacked the law enforcement to obey his enemies?
We have no power over these broadsides. Congress could launch investigations, hold hearings and pass new protections for watchmen and whistleblowers. The HEROES Act, passed last week by the House, includes additional protection for the general inspector, and some members of Congress are discussing stronger measures. The pandemic feels like everyone is coming along, so Congress is likely to focus on these democratic issues only if it is heard from constituents that people are paying attention and want to act. That’s where Americans come in.
Presenting his hand, the closest allies spoke and intensified the crackdown on democratic checks and balances. It’s time for all Americans to start paying attention – and request action before it’s too late.