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Expanding the war on accountability

By JULES WITCOVER

President Trump, not content with his running attack on the critical press, is doubling down on the government watchdogs responsible for ferreting out wrongdoing within his administration.

In the last seven weeks, he has fired four actual or acting inspectors general in the Defense, Intelligence, State, and Health and Human Services departments, on the apparent grounds of his general disapproval of their service to him. It constitutes the most sweeping internal housecleaning in such a short time on record, reflecting Trump’s determination to stifle accountability in the most authoritarian regime in our nation’s history.

Other presidents have encountered intense scrutiny from an American press corps that has always recognized and acted on the powers granted to it in the Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But its use most notably has come in wartime or in periods of domestic turmoil, as in the 1950s Joe McCarthy purge of alleged communists in government and elsewhere, which eventually petered out amid congressional opposition.

Today, however, the current epidemic of presidential firings has come as Trump, having dodged one impeachment bullet over his abuse of executive power, is taking a more direct route to stifling dissent within his camp. He is doing so within the context of his pursuit of a second four-year term, assuring a heavy dose of political partisanship between now and November.

As opposing Democrats strive to characterize him as a loose partisan cannon bombarding small-d democratic pillars of our system of self-government, Trump openly asserts near-dictatorial power with near-unified Republican support of his actions. Several GOP senators, however, have indicated interest in an effort by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa to get clarification from the president on two of the firings.

They have questioned his discharges of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson on April 3 and State Department inspector general Steve Linick on May 15. Linick reportedly was dismissed for investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over alleged misuse of federal funds to pay aides for personal services ranging from dog-walking to dry-cleaning chores. Pompeo has said he was unaware of any such investigation.

The other two inspectors general firings were of Glenn Fine from the Defense Department on April 7 and Christi Grimm from Health and Human Services on May 1. Trump said that had lost confidence in the IGs, according to Politico: “It happens to be very political whether you like it or not. And many of these people were Obama appointments.”

Among Trump’s Republican critics for the firings is Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

“It’s very clear that the president has to provide a justification 30 days prior to the removal of an inspector general,” said Collins, co-author of a 2008 law requiring such notice. “It is not sufficient notification to say he simply lost confidence. … We intended a more fulsome explanation.”

Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota is another GOP leader who says Trump should provide reasons for the firings.

“We deserve an explanation. These are important positions, Thune said. “They are watchdogs for these agencies, and they have an important role to play, and I think it’s important for us to be a part of the oversight process.”

But apparently it is not so perceived in the Oval Office and the mind of Trump, who apparently believes he provides all the oversight needed.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said he was considering joining Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey in sponsoring legislation shielding inspectors general from firing for political reasons, but such a bill seemingly would find an early burial in the Republican-controlled Senate. In the end, any concerted argument for such oversight probably would have to come from the American press, which hasn’t had much persuasive power with a president who continues to label it “the enemy of the people.”

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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