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autocracy rising

The Purge of the Inspectors General

This administration is not to be inspected

In the two weeks preceding the total authority episode (see accompanying article "Worries Mount..."), there was an epidemic of the president's petty vengeance. He is intolerant of anyone whose job obligates reporting facts or taking action not to his liking. His pathology is such that he cannot let that go without retribution. He had already been getting rid of those who testified in the House impeachment proceedings, but his kill list is long. He is devoting particular attention to removal of professional inspectors general in various quarters and replacing them with loyal political appointees unlikely to find any fault.

Well into the black hole of a Friday night to escape notice, Trump fired the intelligence agencies' inspector general, Michael Atkinson. He had been 15 years with the Justice Department beginning in the Bush administration. He was Trump's own nominee for the job. Atkinson's crime? He had obeyed the law. Under the federal whistleblower statute, he was obligated to report to Congress receipt of a complaint that he deemed met the criterion of "serious concern". It surely did. It led to no less than Trump's impeachment.

But for exposing Trump's misdeeds — his holding up Congressionally-authorized military assistance funds for Ukraine contingent on its president investigating Joe Biden and son and on fabricating that Ukraine not Russia interfered in the 2016 elections — Trump called Atkinson "a disgrace" who "did a terrible job". Atkinson had forwarded "a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report — it was fake. It was totally wrong", except that just about everything in the whistleblower complaint was corroborated by a dozen government officials who testified to Congress in the impeachment proceedings. The president said he felt there was a lack of loyalty, describing Atkinson as “not a big Trump fan”, as if loyalty to him was in everyone's job description.

This was Trump rewriting history, projecting his reconstructed version to his base, which by now has forgotten details it may never have noted at the time and are now to think, as Trump purges one after another, that inspectors general across the government have no business overseeing Trump's government. This is the mentality of a dictator, who designs not to govern but to rule.

The inspector general of Health and Human Services came out with a report saying that a survey of 323 hospitals around the country revealed that they faced severe shortages of coronavirus test supplies. The report made no judgments about the department or the administration but Trump called it “Another Fake Dossier!”. In his news briefing he said,

"It’s wrong…Could politics be entered into that?…You didn’t tell me also that this inspector general came out of the Obama administration”.

The report was from government watchdog Christi Grimm whose service dates from 1999, but for Trump — who has spoken also of "Obama judges", invoking a reprimand from Chief Justice Roberts — everyone with any connection to Obama is out to get him.

In the midst of the pandemic, the president would remove another career government official who has served both Republican and Democratic administrations, acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine. The four top leaders of Congress had appointed Fine to the oversight board mandated by the Cares Act that is to keep watch over how $550 million of the the $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus money will be spent to aid large corporations.

House Democrats had insisted that there be a rigorous oversight panel to prevent the money from being corruptly misappropriated to political favorites. That looked all too likely when Trump signaled in a signing statement that he did not intend to share information with the oversight board about how the money is being spent. "Look, I'll be the oversight", he said, and to that end replaced Fine in the fifth slot on the board with his own man, Brian Miller, of the White House Counsel office. It was Miller who, in a brusque three sentence e-mail, rebuffed Congress's Government Accountability Office when it sought information pertinent to the impeachment proceedings.

Dwell on that: In place of a long-term career professional inspector general, whose creed is fair-minded impartiality, we have a political appointee out to please the boss overseeing half a trillion in funds we taxpayers are on the hook for.

the enemies list

The autocrat knows that his arrogation of power breeds enemies. Paranoia dictates that he purge all around him of those who show hints of disagreement or disloyalty. Axios reported that Trump gave his 29-year-old body man, John McEntee, the new assignment of ridding his government of all believed to be anti-Trump.

The White House already had in hand lists of those to oust and replace, compiled over 18 months with the assistance of allies, among them even the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who runs a conservative activist network called Groundswell. Axios reporter Jonathan Swan gained access to such lists that form Trump's notions of subversion, his "deep state" filled with what he calls "snakes". Authenticating that claim, we heard Trump apply that insult to Washington's Governor Jay Inslee.

As The New York Times's Peter Baker wrote, "officials show up for work now never entirely sure who will be there by the end of the evening — themselves included".

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