Trump has stripped away the levers of independent oversight until there’s nothing left. Our democracy is in the midst of a three-alarm fire.
When former Vice President Joe Biden entered the Democratic presidential race a year ago, he introduced the now familiar theme that the “soul of this nation” was at stake in the 2020 election. Judging by what we’ve seen from President Donald Trump over the past few days, Biden is right.
It began Friday night, when Trump informed Congress that he was firing MIchael Atkinson, the Intelligence Community’s inspector general. This was nothing more than a vile act of political retribution that had been months in the making. Atkinson fulfilled his legal responsibilities by informing Congress about a whistleblower complaint that exposed Trump’s impeachable crimes. What everyone else recognizes as following the letter of the law, the president views as cause for termination.
On Monday, Trump turned his attention to the inspector general who oversees the Department of Health and Human Services, who had just released a report revealing the extent to which hospitals were struggling to meet the health care demands associated with treating COVID-19 patients. The thorough review included interviews from 323 hospitals across 46 states and stood in stark contrast with the rhetoric coming from the president. Naturally, Trump labeled the report a “Fake Dossier” and suggested “politics” influenced it.
Irony is alive, oversight is dead
On Tuesday, the president removed Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine. He had just been designated to oversee the newly created Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a watchdog panel authorized by Congress to conduct oversight of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The same day, Trump said he had seven IGs in his sights — prompting Sen. Chris Murphy to announce he would draft a bill to “give all Inspectors General protected 7 year terms.”
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The irony here is that Republicans once cautioned about this exact thing before Trump infected them and they abandoned every principle they once proclaimed to stand for. There was a time when oversight over massive government spending was the centerpiece of the Republican oversight agenda. My former boss and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa actually declared, “This money, at the American people’s expense, going through the hands of political leaders, is in fact corrupting the process.” He literally called the Obama administration “the most corrupt government in history.” Where are those Republicans now?
In the course of three days, Trump fired an IG for telling the truth, attacked another for exposing the totality of a health care pandemic, and removed another in a brazen effort to avoid being held accountable for how trillions of taxpayer dollars will be allocated. The sum of these actions is nothing short of blatant corruption in plain sight. Free from the limitations of accountability, there is nothing stopping the president from turning the so-called “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) into a $2 trillion personal slush fund.
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Trump feels empowered to obliterate the guardrails of checks and balances. Bit by bit, he has stripped away the levers of oversight until there’s nothing left. It started by ignoring congressional subpoenas for his financial records. It continued as Trump refused to cooperate with the House impeachment investigation, stonewalling Congress’ attempts to hear witness testimony and conduct depositions with administration officials close to the president. And now he is leading a purge of the final remaining frontier of oversight — the inspectors general.
Supreme Court’s dangerous path
For anyone hoping the Supreme Court will assert its role as the third branch of government, it has delayed hearing cases, including three lawsuits involving Trump’s tax returns and financial dealings. And yet, somehow, the Supreme Court managed to reverse a federal judge’s order to extend absentee voting by a week in Wisconsin’s primary on Tuesday. The result was that voters had to choose between their health and their civic duty.
The court’s refusal to move forward with cases that impact the president, coupled with its willingness to interfere with the Wisconsin election, foreshadows a very dangerous path as we look ahead to the November elections. In essence, the court’s conservative majority is just another political instrument for Trump to wield.
It may be hard to see the forest through the trees in this time of social distancing, but make no mistake about it, our democracy is in the midst of a three-alarm fire. The highest court in the land has effectively been hijacked — serving only the interests of Donald Trump. Congress is no longer a co-equal branch of government, a result of Trump’s toxic brand of obstruction.
By taking a wrecking ball to independent oversight, Trump has made the presidency into a dictatorship. At this point, the only recourse we will have left to save our democracy, repair the institutions of government, and restore accountability to the American people, is to vote in November to save “the soul of this nation.” That is, assuming Trump, the Republicans and the Supreme Court let us.
Kurt Bardella, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and an MSNBC contributor, served as the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009-2013. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella
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