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Trump using coronavirus to bully inspector generals, government watchdogs

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  • Trump is using the fog of the coronavirus pandemic to wage an all-out assault on oversight, consolidate his own power, and send a message to his base that they’re right to believe he’s infallible.
  • He just fired the newly-appointed lead inspector general overseeing the $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill, as weel as the intelligence community’s IG last week, and he’s attacked the Health and Human Services’ IG for releasing a report detailing the perilous state of the US’ hospitals.
  • Trump has encouraged his base to believe he’s infallible, and his base has largely bought-in. So it’s not surprising to see Trump go headlong at the institutions who hold the government accountable.
  • No president should be able to bully the watchdogs into submission. And the public — however much they’re overwhelmed with the terror of the current moment — shouldn’t stand for it.   
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Donald Trump isn’t about to let a good crisis go to waste. The president is using the fog of the coronavirus pandemic to wage an all-out assault on oversight, consolidate his own power, and send a message to his base that they’re right to believe he’s infallible.

Trump on Monday fired Glenn Fine from his role as the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, sending him back to his previous role as principal deputy inspector general.  

Fine had just last week been selected by a group of fellow IGs to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. 

The committee was created as part of the recently-passed CARES Act — better known as the coronavirus aid bill — and will oversee where $2 trillion in federal money designated to contain the healthcare and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic ends up. 

By stripping him of his IG title, Trump made it impossible for him to serve on — much less lead — the important oversight panel. 

Trump’s meddling with the newly-created committee comes after it already took a pitched fight by Democrats to even get the administration to agree that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shouldn’t be the sole watchdog on the historic aid package.

With Fine out, the panel will have to select another leader. 

We don’t know why Trump did it, he hasn’t given a reason. But according to The New York Times, Fine had a “a reputation for aggression and independence in scrutinizing the F.B.I.’s use of surveillance and other law-enforcement powers.”

That sends a message to the panel: Make sure your top watchdog isn’t too much of a bulldog. The boss doesn’t like it. 

Or, as Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island put it to The Times: “This appears to be part of an alarming trend by the Trump Administration to remove independent inspector generals and replace them with the president’s loyalists.”

Trump is trying to take out oversight itself

Last Friday, the president fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general. Atkinson had informed Congress last September of a whistleblower’s complaint accusing Trump of soliciting the president of Ukraine’s help in digging up dirt on a political rival. 

Trump was impeached for that phone call. When he survived his Senate trial, Atkinson’s fate was sealed. 

As Atkinson wrote in his resignation letter, “it is 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.”

It’s hard not to think Atkinson hit the nail on the head. 

Trump reportedly was talking about firing Atkinson as far back as last November. And this is, after all, a president who has publicly talked of putting conditions on governors to act sufficiently nice to him if they want their states to receive desperately-needed federal assistance to fight the coronavirus pandemic. 

Also this week, Trump has gone on the attack against Christi Grimm, the Department of Human Health and Services inspector general. 

She had gotten under Trump’s famously thin skin for releasing a report detailing what’s painfully obvious to everyone but the most myopic of Trump loyalists: that hospitals are experiencing “severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results limited (their) ability to monitor the health of patients and staff.” 

True to character, Trump immediately suggested a political motive because Grimm had worked in the inspector general’s office during the Obama administration. 

This ignored the fact that Grimm had also worked in the IG’s office during the George W. Bush administration and started there during the Clinton administration. Grimm is the definition of a career non-partisan government watchdog. 

Trump, for his part, tweeted Tuesday that her report was “Another Fake Dossier” — an apparent reference to the Steele dossier, the document produced by a former British spy which contained both salacious and unverified stories about Trump’s involvement with the Russian government, but also a substantial amount of verified, damaging information about the dealings of people in Trump’s inner orbit. 

The two reports, obviously, have nothing in common. But Trump knows how to play the hits to his audience.

By smearing Grimm’s reports “Another Fake Dossier,” he’s undermining public confidence in the watchdogs who are vital to the public during every administration to keep tabs on what the government is doing. And he’s sending a message to his base: inspectors generals are just Deep State leftists out to take down all that is MAGA.

The inspectors general of these semi-independent entities serve at the pleasure of the president. He has every right to fire any of them for pretty much any reason. 

Trump has encouraged his base to believe he’s infallible. He wants them to accept the premise that everything from the phone call that got him impeached to his administration’s botched reaction to the coming pandemic was “perfect.” And his base has largely bought-in

So it’s not surprising to see Trump go headlong at the institutions that exist precisely because no one is infallible, and those who hold tremendous power should never go without vigorous scrutiny. 

In attacking the people tasked with calling balls and strikes during a pandemic when much of the public is worrying about literal life-and-death issues, Trump is exploiting the crisis for his personal ends. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

Trump can’t fire all the IGs, and he can’t dismantle their offices. But he can sow enough chaos to render them impotent, and he can instill enough fear to keep them cowed when selecting leaders among their ranks. 

It’s a shameful and dangerous game the president is playing. No president should be able to bully the watchdogs into submission. And the public — however much they’re overwhelmed with the terror of the current moment — shouldn’t stand for it.   

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