Sideshow Don: Trump pursues a non-virus agenda

Sideshow Don: Trump pursues a non-virus agenda


When President Donald Trump exacted revenge Friday night by ousting the chief watchdog for the intelligence community, it was just one more instance of the president’s addiction to sideshows — in this case, closing out a personal vendetta in the middle of a global pandemic that has already claimed more than 8,000 American lives.

White House officials and Trump advisers privately cast the firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, as a move the president has plotted since the Senate acquitted him in February on two articles of impeachment.

But to Democrats and Trump skeptics, Atkinson’s Friday-night defenestration offered another example of the myriad ways this president is re-shaping the federal government during this crisis – both to pursue long-held policy goals and to purge internal critics.

“Almost all of our government systems are under such strain now. We have a heightened danger: first, of fraud and waste in terms of how many millions of dollars are being spent, plus, the potential abuse of power,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

“When you have enhanced government authority like restricting people’s travels, you want to make sure people’s civil liberties are not being violated,” she said. “All of these are dangerous positions for inspector generals to take if they are worried about getting fired.”

Trump showed little inclination on Saturday to disguise his motive for firing Atkinson, whom he said did a “terrible job, absolutely terrible.”


“He took a whistle-blower report which turned out to be a fake report. It was fake. It was totally wrong,” Trump said, though subsequent revelations confirmed the accuracy of the whistleblower’s complaint — which sparked a months-long drive to impeachment — in exquisite detail.

“Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you,” the president added, during a press briefing otherwise devoted to the administration’s struggle to combat the outbreak.

In the weeks since the coronavirus first hit the U.S., Trump has continued to pursue pet projects dating back to his 2016 campaign such as rolling back Obama-era regulations, building the border wall and fighting with the Federal Reserve. A new White House personnel director, 29-year-old Johnny McEntee, has meanwhile been hunting for political appointees who have shown any hint of disloyalty to Trump and ordering them transferred or fired.

This week, as the outbreak approached what the president warned could soon reach a “horrific” crescendo of daily deaths, Trump canned Atkinson and tapped a White House aide from the counsel’s office as the new coronavirus relief inspector general, who will oversee the distribution of $500 billion in economic relief to businesses.

Democrats have questioned the independence of a coronavirus inspector general culled from the ranks of the White House staff, even if the lawyer, Brian Miller, also once served as the inspector general of the General Services Administration for 10 years, starting during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Trump’s administration has also weakened government standards for auto emissions since the coronavirus emerged, rolling back a major policy from the Obama-era intended to fight climate change – while continuing to construct the controversial Keystone pipeline. The building of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico has proceeded apace in Arizona, even as millions of Americans stay home to prevent the spread of the virus.

Trump also finally got his way with the Federal Reserve, after months of bashing its chairman in public, as the central bank slashed interest rates in recent weeks to keep the economy afloat as businesses across the country shut down and shed millions of jobs.

Presidents have long used crises to their advantage to enact sweeping political changes, dating back to Woodrow Wilson during the 1918 Spanish flu. Wilson used that pandemic to exert greater authority over the economy by leaning on emergency powers and executive orders to control fuel and food distribution.

Trump is no different in his sentiments as he has pushed policies on building the border wall, cutting taxes and acting tough toward China during an unprecedented public health crisis for which there is no immediate vaccine or cure.

In the case of Atkinson, Trump was removing one of the last of the officials he has angrily blamed for the impeachment “hoax,” with others having departed the government or been removed from their positions in the months since his acquittal

To close Trump allies, Atkinson’s ouster was fully justified — and could even help repair the president’s broken relationship with the intelligence community, which reportedly warned that the coronavirus outbreak in China could have dire consequences for the United States.

The intelligence community “is supposed to be about serving the needs of the commander-in-chief and chief executive,” said Tom Fitton, the right-leaning president of Judicial Watch. “If you can get people in there who have his confidence, then the intelligence reports and briefings will be more readily accepted.”

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