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Trump’s Assaults on Government Watchdogs Expose His Authoritarian Ambitions

We are approaching the crescendo of calamity many have feared was coming since 2016.

President Trump leaves after speaking at a press conference following the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2020.

It has nearly reached the point of being a parlor game: Which government watchdog will Donald Trump fire next?

Before this past Friday, Trump had already sacked three of them. Intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, who handled the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment, got bounced on April 3.

Glenn Fine, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general tasked with overseeing $2.2 trillion of the funds included in the CARES Act relief bill, was given the boot three days later.

Health and Human Services (HHS) deputy inspector general Christi Grimm, who released a chilling report detailing severe shortages of medical supplies and staff in the face of the COVID pandemic, was shown the door on May 1.

These three actions — two vengeance firings and a money grab — are brazen enough on their own. Trump wanted the head of the man who didn’t burn the whistleblower report in an act of starry-eyed loyalty, and the head of the woman who contradicted his sunny lies about our preparedness for the pandemic, and he got them. He also wanted more friendly eyes to oversee where all that yummy COVID money was going, and he got them, too.

On Friday night, however, two very large shoes dropped with a resounding thud. State Department inspector general Steve Linick became the fourth government watchdog to be removed by Trump in the span of six weeks. Initial reports on the cause of Linick’s removal were bad enough: He had been investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan for improperly using staff to run personal errands for them.

That story lasted just long enough for House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York) to stand up and clear his throat. “I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing,” Engel said in a statement on Monday. “His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia. We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.”

The back story here is a perfect distillation of the corruption and greed that has scarred this administration from the beginning.

Saudi Arabia has been slaughtering civilians in Yemen with weapons it purchased from the United States. Members of Congress, including a number of Republicans, threatened to intervene in any further arms sales to the House of Saud. Trump, eager to rake in revenue from another arms sale to the Kingdom and utterly indifferent to the human suffering taking place at the end of the exchange, declared a nonsense state of emergency to expedite the deal. Congress passed legislation to thwart the sale, Trump vetoed it, and an attempted congressional override fell short.

Trump’s ridiculous emergency declaration was what Steve Linick was investigating when he was pushed out, according to Rep. Engel. Along those lines, Linick was looking into the role Pompeo may have played from his perch in the State Department to unlawfully expedite the deal. Pompeo was apparently well aware of Linick’s investigation, and gave written answers to Linick’s queries but declined to be interviewed by the watchdog’s office. After Linick was let go, allies to Pompeo claimed he was removed because he was not pursuing an investigation into press leaks with sufficient vigor.

On Monday, Pompeo denied knowing what Linick had been investigating, and offered a telling explanation for the inspector’s release. “I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to,” he told The Washington Post, “that was additive for the State Department, very consistent with what the statute says he’s supposed to be doing. The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”

Short form: Pompeo specifically asked Trump to remove Linick from his watchdog position because he wasn’t doing what he was told. Shorter form: Linick wasn’t loyal to Trump, and now Linick is gone.

There was a fifth inspector removed on Friday night, an act that has received less scrutiny than the sacking of Steve Linick. Mitch Behm, acting inspector general for the Department of Transportation (DOT), was demoted to deputy without explanation. Like Glenn Fine, Behm was tasked with overseeing a portion of the money allocated by the COVID relief legislation passed by Congress.

There appears to be far more to Behr’s demotion than the COVID money. Last year, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao awarded a $67.4 million grant to Boone County, Kentucky. Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and McConnell is facing a stiff challenge to his re-election as Kentucky’s senior senator. Suburban Boone County is a vital “get” for McConnell if he hopes to return to office, and his wife seems to have done her thoroughly unscrupulous part to aid in that endeavor.

In response, the watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a scathing statement:

In yet another assault on checks and balances, President Trump abruptly removed the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) independent watchdog late Friday – the same night he announced plans to fire the State Department Inspector General (IG). At DOT, the acting IG was overseeing a high profile investigation of Secretary Chao’s alleged favoritism benefiting her husband Senator Mitch McConnell’s political prospects, but has now been replaced with a political appointee from within the agency. The acting IG’s ouster calls into question the future of the Chao-McConnell investigation, other critical oversight, and whether the watchdog was dismissed for unearthing damaging information.

There appears to be no stopping this avalanche of broad-daylight corruption. House Democrats have opened an investigation into all these firings that will almost certainly go nowhere, and Speaker Pelosi dispatched a strongly worded letter to the White House demanding an explanation. That and a dollar still won’t get you a cup of black coffee at Starbucks.

As for the Republicans? Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have made concerned noises over the firings, but pretty much the entire GOP establishment has chosen to remain in thrall to Trump during an election year. During the Obama administration, congressional Republicans were stalwart defenders of all government watchdogs, but now, not so much. And, of course, Mitch McConnell has a vested interest in making sure nobody asks any hard questions about all this.

Trump and his people were never subtle about their desire to place the executive branch above the law, and Trump himself has been conspicuously enchanted with the absolute power enjoyed by authoritarian leaders all over the world. Now, amid the grinding roar of a pandemic that has no end in sight, they are sweeping away any lingering vestiges of oversight as they assert a 21st-century version of the divine right of kings.

Make no mistake: The country is not “falling apart.” It is being torn apart, with clear deliberation and intent, while the Treasury is looted and masses wail for succor in unemployed cloister behind tightly closed doors. We are approaching the crescendo of calamity many have feared was coming since 2016, and almost nothing is left to stand in its way.

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