If, three years ago, President Trump had removed two inspectors general from their posts within a week of each other for overtly self-interested reasons—as he has done over the past few days—it would have been a big scandal. Presidents don’t just fire inspectors general for doing their jobs, after all. And presidents who agree to have an oversight board composed of inspectors general don’t typically sack one of them to prevent him from leading the board’s monitoring of trillions of dollars of congressionally appropriated money.
Yet last week, the president announced the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson for overtly retaliatory reasons. Atkinson had been the inspector general who notified Congress, as he was legally bound to do, of a whistleblower complaint that raised a matter of “urgent concern”—the event triggered the Ukraine scandal and the president’s resulting impeachment.
Trump, in explaining Atkinson’s removal, made no secret that it came in response to Atkinson’s having gotten Trump in trouble.
“I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible,” Trump said over the weekend. “He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report—it was fake. 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.”
Nor did Atkinson himself doubt that the move was retaliatory. In a statement, he said that “[i]t 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, and from my commitment to continue to do so.”
Then, on Monday, Trump ousted Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general of the Pentagon, from his new role as the chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which has an $80 million budget to monitor government spending under the new $2 trillion relief bill. Fine had been chosen for the new role by the other inspectors general on the committee. But Trump removed Fine as acting inspector general, thereby also removing him from the committee—and from his role as its chair, since only currently serving inspectors general can be part of the committee. He then installed the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency as acting inspector general at the Defense Department in Fine’s place.
Before his role at the Pentagon, Fine had been the longtime inspector general at the Justice Department, where he had a reputation as a bulldog investigator. While Trump has not yet confessed, as he did with Atkinson, the reason for Fine’s removal, it isn’t subtle: Fine is the kind of guy who will make trouble.
Time was, and it was not so long ago, that presidents couldn’t just remove unwanted oversight mechanisms with impunity, much less do so as retaliatory gestures for people doing their jobs or because aggressive oversight of $2 trillion of emergency spending might be inconvenient. The impediment wasn’t legal. It was political—the fear of response by some other actor in the governmental system.
Had Trump taken an action like this toward the beginning of his presidency, there would have been at least some response. When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, after all, there was outrage. There were hearings. And it was the fear of blowback from Senate Republicans that prevented Trump for many months from firing Jeff Sessions as attorney general. That fear emanated from a tangible reality. Such an action would have once been a big deal that necessitated congressional reaction.
But the firing of a couple of inspectors general for transparently—and, in one case, admittedly—self-interested reasons is no longer that big a deal. Part of the reason is that the coronavirus has sucked all the air out of the room. Trump is counting on public distraction to give himself political space for activity that would have been much more scandalous only a few weeks ago. There’s nothing quite like a global cataclysm to distract the public from mere presidential abuse and corruption.
The distraction is actually legitimate. In this moment, the public, like public officials, needs to prioritize. It is more important right now for reporters, television networks, commentators and the public at large to absorb news about the pandemic than it is for people to absorb news about the president’s ongoing spree of abuses. One involves a fast-moving story of literally life-and-death stakes wherein each news consumer has a critical role to play by observing social distancing and other public health guidances. The other involves the latest iteration of a long-established presidential pattern of narcissistically motivated abuses of the presidential appointment power. It’s a classic virus-infects-man story, whereas the pandemic—paradoxically—is a man-infects-virus story.
But there’s another reason the serial dismissal of independent inspectors general causes only a ripple, not a political wave. And that is that we’ve gotten so used to this sort of thing that we don’t see it as all that scandalous any more. We see it just as Trump being Trump.
Yes, when Trump removed Comey for overtly political reasons, it was a scandal. When he threatened to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller and menaced Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that was a looming scandal. And when he threatened to fire Sessions, Senate Republicans made clear they wouldn’t sit still for it—at least at first.
But by the time Trump actually fired Sessions, those same senators had gotten used to the idea. And by the time Trump got rid of National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman—along with his brother, for good measure—some of them were ready to defend it. Likewise, there’s been nary a peep about the wave of firings that has recently crashed over the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has included replacement of a DNI, an acting DNI, a deputy DNI, and a head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Simple repetition of the abusive behavior has caused us to integrate it into our list of things that presidents get away with doing—because he has gotten away with it. This is what we mean when we use the somewhat hackneyed term “normalize” in relation to Trump and his deviant behaviors. Trump has normalized the hiring and removal of investigative and intelligence officials on the basis of whether or not they will deliver the goods the president wants and whether or not they pose a political threat to him.
If Congress were under unified Democratic control, or if a handful of Republican senators cared enough to push back, there would be a lot that lawmakers could do. And there may still be. The administration keeps coming to Congress to ask for major relief packages, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have shown themselves adept at getting a great deal of what they want in the course of negotiating those packages. Holding some of the administration’s priorities hostage to the president’s behaving himself with respect to oversight is an aggressive approach—but, under the circumstances, a reasonable one. In the end, however, a Congress divided between Democratic and Republican control is going to have a hard time taking on the president on a matter about which the president feels as strongly as Trump does about his power to vindictively fire investigators and staffers who don’t “protect” him. Pelosi and Schumer should push, but they’re likely to lose.
There is, however, a major political actor who can make a difference here. His name is Joe Biden. If Trump has normalized this sort of abuse of his appointment powers, Biden—as the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for president—should be speaking regularly to abnormalize it. Biden has spoken regularly about Trump’s deviance from the norms and expectations of the traditional presidency. He has also sought to remind Americans what normal, competent and decent presidential leadership would look like in this coronavirus crisis. One component of that should be reminding Americans that normal leadership would not include pausing to settle political scores with officials who tell the truth. It would not involve taking action to avoid aggressive oversight of trillions of dollars in spending. And it would not involve demanding that an inspector general be a “fan” of the president.
Ultimately, the only way to reestablish the norm that presidents submit to internal oversight mechanisms, that they don’t seek to control them for personal benefit, and that they allow the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to do their jobs without political interference is to insist on it in the political arena. That’s what political campaigns are for. Biden is now in the stage of his campaign in which he needs to begin drawing contrasts between himself and the incumbent. He is no longer competing with others for the attention of Democratic primary voters, whatever Bernie Sanders might think. His challenge is to break through to the public and to present an alternative to Trump.
This should be a key part of that alternative. In Biden’s efforts to draw contrasts to Trump, it is an area that warrants his very public and consistent attention. It is about what—and whom—the presidency is for.