Putting the Watchdogs to Sleep
President Trump floated a head-scratching theory recently about the spread of the novel coronavirus. “If we didn’t do any testing,” he said, “we would have very few cases.” Which is true in an esoteric way. We’d have plenty of sick people and dead bodies, but on a sheet of paper we would not have a number written down that said “number of confirmed coronavirus cases.”
That was a meaningful window into Trump’s psyche, because he’s now applying the same logic to government watchdogs. If there’s no monitoring, there’s no problem. Get rid of the watchdogs and—voila!—there’s nothing to watch.
Trump’s war against federal inspectors general isn’t front-page news. Still, it’s an unprecedented attack on the guardrails Congress installed in the post-Watergate era.
Had Trump fired all of the inspectors general in a single night, it might have aroused more outrage. With time and repetition, though, the president has normalized the task of disposing of those who raise legal and ethical concerns about his administration’s actions.
Over the last two months, Trump has purged five inspectors general. He fired the IG responsible for kickstarting his impeachment; he fired a pair of IGs tasked with monitoring the administration’s handling of the coronavirus; he fired a State Department IG who was reportedly reviewing Secretary Pompeo’s abuse of taxpayer resources (and arms sales to Saudi Arabia); and he fired the Department of Transportation IG who was looking into whether Secretary Elaine Chao—who is married Sen. Mitch McConnell—had given preferential treatment to the state her husband represents.
You know. Because Donald Trump came to Washington to drain the swamp.
The 1978 Inspector General Act created offices inside federal agencies for the purpose of investigating fraud and reporting those findings to Congress. Yet, while the act does grant presidents the power to appoint and remove IGs, Trump’s actions are far outside the norms.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan made the mistake of firing all 16 inspectors general upon taking office and faced such a backlash he quickly reinstated many of them. Since then, presidents generally didn’t tamper with the offices until President Obama removed the AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin in 2009 (which didn’t go over well, either).
Suspicions over Walpin’s firing prompted a formal inquiry by Republicans, led by then-Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley and House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Ranking Member Rep. Darrell Issa. Several right-leaning media outlets accused President Obama of a cover-up.
In his formal communications to Congress notifying the body of his intent to remove IGs, as required by law, President Trump has copied the vague language about “losing confidence” in the officials used by Obama in his controversial firing of Walpin. Grassley, a longtime champion of inspectors general, has pressed the president for more explanation. He has gotten none.
But all Grassley has to do is look at what the president has said in public in order to discover the man’s motivations. Trump wanted vengeance against the IGs for doing their jobs.
IG Atkinson, for instance, was legally bound to transmit the whistleblower complaint that documented the president’s improper communications with Ukraine to Congress. That complaint triggered impeachment. So, Atkinson had been on Trump’s radar for a long time.
Atkinson was terminated on April 3, about a month after the Senate voted against Trump’s conviction. When asked by reporters on April 5 about the firing, Trump bluntly stated that it was retaliatory action. “I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report—it was fake,” Trump said. “It was totally wrong. It was about my conversation with the President of Ukraine. He took a fake report, and he brought it to Congress, with an emergency. Okay? Not a big Trump fan—that, I can tell you.”
Trump’s rampage against inspectors general continued through his coronavirus briefings. During an April 6 press conference, he was asked about a report released by the Health and Human Services Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm. It detailed testing and personal protective equipment shortages at hospitals. Trump retorted, “It’s just wrong” and demanded that reporters tell him her name. Trump said, “What’s his name?” “Where did he come from, the inspector general?” “Find me his name,” and “Give me the name of the inspector general. Could politics be entered into that?” (Grimm is a woman.)
That same day, Glenn Fine, the Pentagon’s highly respected Acting Inspector General, who was on track to chair a federal panel of inspectors general created by Congress to oversee Trump’s coronavirus spending, was told he was going to be replaced. (Which meant he would be unable to chair the new oversight group.) While Trump has been tight-lipped about his reasoning for firing Fine, it was plain to see how upset Trump was at the thought of people scrutinizing his administration’s management of the coronavirus.
Inspectors general were still on his mind the next morning, when after apparently finding out Grimm’s name, Trump publicly attacked her on Twitter. He bashed Grimm, who joined HHS as a non-political employee in 1999 during the Clinton administration and served both Republican and Democratic presidents, for her service during the Obama years and described her report as “Another Fake Dossier!” Then, on May 1, he announced her replacement.
After this, Trump moved on from firing inspectors general who might produce unfavorable reports about him, to firing those who might issue critical judgments about Pompeo and the power couple Chao/McConnell.
He terminated State Department IG Steve Linick, who had been investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on May 15. Why? Because, according to Trump, Pompeo asked him to. Trump told reporters: “I don’t know him. Never heard of him. But they asked me to terminate him. I have the absolute right as president to terminate. But you would have to ask Mike Pompeo. But, they did ask me to do it, and I did it.”
A cabinet secretary asking the president to ax an inspector general who is investigating him is not a normal request. Neither is it normal for the president to agree to the request without knowing anything about the matter or asking for further information.
Initially Pompeo said that Linick was wasting his time looking at requests Pompeo made to staff to walk his dog and made dinner arrangements for him and his wife. The real story came out later. Linick was reviewing President Trump’s decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval. And then another doozy came out: Pompeo, who is widely rumored to have presidential aspirations of his own and has previously explored a run for the Senate, had used taxpayer resources to host a series of lavish dinners at the State Department to court donors, celebrities, and media friends.
The same day Linick was let go, Trump stripped Transportation Acting Transportation Department Inspector General Mitch Behm of his duties. Behm was reviewing actions taken by Transportation Secretary Chao that may have benefited her husband, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (who is up for re-election this year). How closely bound up is this couple with the president? Just last weekend Secretary Chao appeared on the Team Trump Online broadcast.
It goes without saying that neither Pompeo, Chao, or McConnell would like to see reports written about any of that. Thanks to Trump, those reports will, at the very least, be delayed after the elections, if ever issued at all.
Democrats have launched several probes to investigate these removals, but those inquiries will take time and will likely be lost in the maelstrom of chaos that has surrounded this president’s entire administration.
One of Trump’s great innovations of governance has been the realization that one scandal can be fatal. A hundred scandals, on the other hand, blur into white noise. This precept is his principal governing philosophy.
And like a fractal, this truism holds no matter how close you zoom in. Even in the firing of the IGs Trump understood that it would cause him less trouble to fire more of them and to routinize the practice.
Atkinson, Grimm, Fine, Linick, and Behm follow a long line of other government officials who found themselves out of a job because they were in the way of Trump’s gangster government.
The Russia investigation led to the firings and forced resignations of former FBI Director James Comey, his Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to name a handful. Trump’s fusillades against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, and Marie Yovanovitch defined the impeachment hearings. Vindman’s twin brother was fired, too.
Because Trump understands that the more abuse there is, the less any of it matters.
Donald Trump may be reckless, uninformed, and cognitively limited. But he has always possessed a certain kind of cunning. He faced no significant consequence for his firings through the Russia investigation and impeachment and it is obvious that there is no force within the Republican party that will stop him from purging more officials who say or do anything that he finds politically inconvenient.
Pompeo’s petition shows that those who succeed Trump as the owner of the Republican party are not likely to forget this lesson. As long as it works, they will repeat it.