The dangerous consequences of Trump’s oversight purge

Trump’s late Friday night firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick — at a time when America is preoccupied by coronavirus — once again had echoes of President Richard Nixon’s Saturday night massacre more than four decades ago when he tried to thwart the investigation into his involvement in the Watergate break in.

But Trump’s attempt to systematically dismantle the checks and balances that are the bedrock of America’s democracy has arguably taken a far heavier toll.

He is showing that he can bend the levers of government to suit his whims, by simply disposing of respected, career government employees whom he perceives as having criticized him, crossed him or refused to carry out his bidding. With the firings, he is demolishing the ideal that inspectors general can operate independently without fear of retribution as they attempt to uncover waste, fraud and abuse that does not serve the interests of the American people.
Linick’s crimes? He handed over to House impeachment officials documents detailing Rudy Giuliani’s contacts with Ukrainian prosecutors as he tried to get the State Department to investigate the Bidens. Linick outlined allegations that State Department officials harassed staffers who were viewed as disloyal to the Trump administration in an August 2019 report.
He was also allegedly conducting an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a Democrat. (A State Department source told CNN Saturday that there is an investigation into the alleged improper use by Pompeo of a political appointee; the State Department did not return calls for comment).
Linick’s dismissal follows the same pattern of Trump’s Friday night firing in April of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who sent the anonymous Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress calling it “urgent.” As with Atkinson, Trump told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a letter Friday night that he needed to have the “fullest confidence” in appointees serving as inspectors general and said that was “no longer the case” with Linick.
When Trump used that same phrase in Atkinson’s firing on April 3, the veteran Justice Department official said it was hard “not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General.” (Trump defended his decision by claiming that Atkinson “took a fake report and gave it to Congress.”)

Amid outcry from Democratic lawmakers over Linick’s firing, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley noted in a Saturday statement that the President must provide Congress with written justification for removing inspectors general and said, “a general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.”

The Iowa Republican added that inspectors general “are crucial in correcting government failures and promoting the accountability that the American people deserve.”

Later on Saturday, Sen. Mitt Romney — the only GOP senator who voted to convict Trump of abuse of power — strongly condemned the firings. “The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power,” the Utah Republican tweeted.
The President’s thirst for retaliation shows no signs of abating. He has long demonstrated his contempt for officials who serve in the investigative oversight roles in government, and though the jobs are non-partisan, he is particularly distrustful of inspectors general who served under the Democratic administration of former President Barack Obama. (His anger over the Russia probe led to the firings of FBI Director James Comey and Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe).

At a time when one would expect the President to be more concerned with consequential matters like the more than 88,000 coronavirus deaths and record unemployment, Trump is still seething over his treatment during the impeachment inquiry. On Saturday, he dredged up unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the impeachment probe and fired off a tweet urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham to investigate what a conservative writer called the “Russian collusion hoax.”

“Get tough and move quickly, or it will be too late,” Trump tweeted, quoting a tweet from Sean Davis, the co-founder of The Federalist, who argued McConnell would not be able to maintain the Senate majority “without addressing the hoax and holding the hoaxers accountable.”

“They MUST pay a big price for what they have done to our Country. Don’t let them get away with this,” Trump tweeted, tagging Graham.

Trump has shown the same troubling intolerance for oversight of administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 7, he removed the acting inspector general for the Defense Department, Glenn Fine, who was charged with keeping an eye on the $2 trillion in emergency coronavirus funding.

Explaining his decision during a White House briefing, Trump vaguely noted that there were a number of inspectors general “from the Obama era” and said it was “a presidential decision.”

“When we have, you know, reports of bias and when we have different things coming in — I don’t know Fine; I don’t think I ever met Fine,” he said trailing off. (Former Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed Fine Inspector General of the Department of Justice in 2000 and he has served under both Democratic and Republican administrations.)
On May 1, Trump took steps to replace Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general for Health and Human Services, who had been filling the role of inspector general, after she released a report detailing the severe and widespread shortages of testing supplies and personal protective equipment that hospitals were facing as they tried to protect patients and front-line medical workers.
When a reporter asked Trump in early April about Grimm’s report, noting the supply shortages, he bristled even at the mention of the inspector general’s role and demanded her name.

“Did I hear the word ‘inspector general,’ really?” he replied to the reporter. “It’s wrong. … It’s wrong.”

At the time of his firing in early April, Atkinson urged other inspectors general offices throughout the federal government not to “allow recent events to silence your voices.”

If they follow that advice, it may cost them their jobs.

Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this story.

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