When President Trump announced late on Friday that he would fire the government watchdog who told Congress about the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint, which ultimately led to his impeachment, it touched off one of the most acute threats yet to our democracy. But it didn’t even make the front page of most papers.
That’s understandable. Thousands of Americans are dying every day from the terrifying coronavirus pandemic. People are worried about their own safety and that of their families, as well as about their jobs and livelihood. Questions abound about how the crisis got to this point, whether the Trump administration took appropriate steps to address it and what steps are needed to minimize the devastation going forward; there is little bandwidth for anything else.
But we can’t afford to ignore the anti-democratic steps the president is taking while the American people are appropriately preoccupied with this outbreak. If we don’t respond to these outrageous abuses now, the damage may be done by the time anyone is the wiser.
The worst of the president’s latest round of steps to undermine checks and balances came not just in this time of crisis, but on a Friday night, the classic black hole for sweeping problematic actions in Washington under the rug.
First, the president announced that he would be firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community. Mr. Trump said in a required letter to Congress that he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in Atkinson; there was not even an effort to disguise the fact that what caused the president to lose that confidence was Atkinson following the law and allowing the truth to come out about Mr. Trump’s lawless attempt to pressure a foreign power to announce politically helpful investigations. Mr. Atkinson will be fired 30 days after the letter went to Congress, the soonest he can be under law, but the president undercut even that law by putting Mr. Atkinson on immediate administrative leave.
Michael Horowitz, the respected inspector general of the Department of Justice and chairman of a council that coordinates inspectors general, went out on a limb to vouch for Mr. Atkinson, praising his integrity and his handling of the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint. Mr. Horowitz is right, and his affirmation that the inspector general community “will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight” is heartening.
But President Trump’s further action makes that claim questionable at best. The president compounded the Atkinson announcement on Friday night with his intention to nominate White House lawyer Brian Miller to be special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a key position for oversight of the just-passed $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, which is ripe for fraud and corruption without aggressive review. The position demands ironclad independence, particularly with the risk that the president’s company, relatives, customers and donors could seek to benefit from the stimulus package. Mr. Miller, who served for nearly 10 years as inspector general at the General Services Administration, but more recently played a role in the White House’s response to the impeachment inquiry, is precisely the wrong person to ensure independence. A former senior Senate staff member praised Miller’s “loyalty to the administration” in explaining why he’ll make a good choice, even though loyalty is the exact opposite of what is needed.
The one-two punch of Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Miller is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg of the president’s dangerous attacks on the independence of inspectors general. Mr. Trump will likely fire additional inspectors general because he and his allies view them as “deep state” operatives who undermine him. Indeed, the president seems to view any independence within the government and certainly any checks on him as intolerable disloyalty; that notion, of course, runs counter to our entire system of checks and balances.
Friday night’s actions came at the end of a week of scary departures from democratic practices. Reporting indicates that more and more power has gone to the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose coronavirus “shadow task force” of government allies and private sector connections may run afoul of federal law. Mr. Kushner is meanwhile also reportedly playing a significant role in the Trump re-election campaign from the White House, which may also violate federal law. Nepotism and disregard for the law have characterized this administration from day one, but the volume and brazenness of these anti-democratic tendencies is increasing.
Indeed, earlier Friday, the government changed its description on a federal website of the strategic national stockpile to correspond to Mr. Kushner’s description of it as being for the benefit of the federal government, not the states. Also last week, the Navy fired a captain who blew the whistle on the scope of a Covid-19 outbreak on his ship, another example of apparent payback for truthtelling, and the president reportedly wants to have his own signature on stimulus checks to Americans, which may also run afoul of law. All of these autocratic steps come on top of the president’s February purges of officials who testified in the impeachment trial and attempts to meddle in the sentencing of friends and allies convicted of crimes.
Here’s why this matters: times of crisis are when democracies are in the gravest danger of crumbling. We are seeing that play out in the world right now. Hungary, which has watched its hard won post-Cold War democratic reforms slipping away for some time, this week saw its Parliament give Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom Mr. Trump has praised, unlimited authority, effectively turning the country into a dictatorship. Dictators around the world are using the pandemic to tighten their control.
We’re not there yet. But the president’s attempts to rid the government of those who would provide appropriate oversight and accountability for abuses and speak truth to power, to put in place loyalists who will look out for him rather than providing independent checks, and to empower relatives and disregard laws sets us on a dangerous trajectory. Firing inspectors general and replacing them with loyalists is a serious threat to our democracy. The American people must register our outrage; Congress must investigate the firings aggressively and rigorously vet nominees. If we ignore the erosion of checks and balances because we are preoccupied with more immediate concerns, we may find that our democracy — when we need the institutions of this country the most — is disappearing. Just ask Hungary.
Noah Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
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