There's always a bigger scandal
Coronavirus has, once again, provided good cover for President Trump's ongoing attack on American democracy and his weakening of any limits on his power. Last Friday, Trump fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, the fourth inspector general the president has pushed out since early April. In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump explained that he had let Linick go because he no longer had "the fullest confidence" in him.
Yet the rapid purge of four independent government watchdogs in less than two months suggests that Trump has other, more nefarious, motivations. As Vox's Zack Beauchamp wrote back in early April when the bloodbath began, Trump's removal of these four inspectors general represents nothing less than "a war on the very concept of oversight." While Americans are busy watching the latest developments regarding COVID-19, Trump is making sure there's no one left in the government to watch him.
That's not surprising given everything that Trump and his surrogates are up to. Even for an administration as scandal-engaged as this one — to call it "scandal-plagued" would suggest a certain passive, if not entirely innocent, nature — the ramp up of corruptions during coronavirus has been particularly outrageous.
Just this week, news broke that a Trump-favored construction firm had won a $1.3 billion contract to build a section of the border wall. No matter that an earlier contract awarded to the same firm was facing an inspector general audit over potentially improper political influence.
Earlier this month, word came that the federal vaccine chief, Dr. Richard Bright, had been removed from his position in apparent retaliation for his filing of a whistleblowing complaint about the government's poor response to coronavirus. Trump groused that Bright was just a "disgruntled employee" who was trying to help the Democrats. So twisted is Trump's mind that he can only imagine Bright — the very man tasked with leading the government's efforts to find a vaccine — as really being a stealth agent for Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner staffed the government's PPE procurement team with young investment bankers who were told, as the New York Times reported, to prioritize any leads that came from Trump's political allies or business cronies. The result? Critical lost time, wasteful, overpriced deals, and millions of dollars of fraud already. Just the normal cost of doing business with the Trump family.
And then there's the recent decision by the Justice Department to drop all charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a man who twice pled guilty regarding his role in the Russia investigation. No wonder the president's lawyers are now arguing before the Supreme Court that Trump is above the law and immune from investigation, an extraordinary contention but one that every prior capitulation to Trump's lawlessness has led to.
For a man who promised to "drain the swamp" when he got to Washington, Trump instead has extravagantly flooded the quagmire, reveling in its muck, siphoning what he can to his wallet, and using the rest of it to hide his own crimes and offenses.
As always, Trump's corruption benefits from two things. First, the relentlessness of his assault on democratic norms and the Constitution works to mute the outrage at each individual violation. By overwhelming the system — and the American psyche — with so many unlawful or undemocratic acts, Trump has weakened what would be the normal response if there were only one big scandal rocking his administration.
Secondly, and relatedly, in any given moment there's always a bigger corruption to focus on, a greater horror to spotlight. For now, the press is rightly concentrated on the administration's disastrous and deadly mishandling of the pandemic. There's little bandwidth to pay attention to anything else, and Trump's chaos style of management depends on exactly that. Scandals are minimized or overlooked because there's always a bigger — or newer — wrongdoing that serves to distract. Of course, in the end it means that none of them will matter. Trump can get away with anything because he's already gotten away with everything.
That's why Trump has gone after the inspectors general and also why their firings should be setting off every alarm bell. The entire purpose of IGs is to conduct audits and investigations, providing impartial oversight of government workings and operating as a critical check on the president's power, an anathema concept to our would-be authoritarian ruler. Their commitment to accountability flies straight in the face of Trump's demand for unquestioning loyalty. Their dedication to safeguarding the American people and our Constitutional democracy offends Trump's sense that government officials exist solely to protect him.
With nearly 100,000 Americans dead from a ravaging global pandemic, any normal president would be obsessively and exclusively focused on doing anything in their power to help stop the virus' spread. But Trump is no normal president. His obsessive focus is always exclusively on him. Because of that, Americans will continue to die from this terrible disease while Trump spends his time making sure that no one is left to threaten his sick presidency.
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