The other dangerous virus infecting our country

The other dangerous virus infecting our country
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On March 30, 1981, as he was wheeled into the operating room following an attempted assassination, President Ronald Reagan said to the surgeons, “Please tell me you are Republicans.”

Reagan was kidding. President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE is deadly serious.

Trump has fired career public servants whose only sin is doing their jobs and bringing to light information he doesn’t like or that he thinks jeopardizes his re-election. He has replaced them with people whose principal credential is loyalty to Trump. These purges are destroying oversight, accountability, expertise and independence — four pillars of democratic governance.

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Trump’s removal of four Inspectors General — and his explanations for getting rid of them — are deeply disturbing. Although the president does, indeed, have the right to remove IGs, the laws establishing these positions in agencies in the federal government give them the power to conduct audits, investigations, inspections and evaluations; report their findings and recommendations directly to Congress; hire their own staff and manage their own budgets; investigate complaints from agency employees, decide if they are credible, and protect the identities of whistleblowers. Stipulating that appointments should be made “without regard to political affiliation,” the legislation, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has indicated, helps ensure IGs are “qualified and independent.”

Nonetheless, when asked what warranted the dismissal of State Department IG Steve Linick (who was investigating allegations that Secretary Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFeds investigating allegations TikTok failed to protect children's privacy: report Hillicon Valley: Pompeo floats TikTok ban | Civil rights groups slam Facebook after call | Election security funding included in proposal Top US general doubtful Russian bounties led to American deaths in Afghanistan MORE and his wife violated ethics rules by directing a staff member to retrieve their dry cleaning, walk their dog and make dinner reservations), President Trump declared, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know anything other than the State Department and Mike in particular, I guess they were not happy with the job he’s doing or something.” Brushing aside the allegations against Pompeo — “I would rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes” — Trump added, “These are Obama appointees. So, I just got rid of him… It happens to be very political whether you like it or not.” In his letter of notification to Speaker of the House Pelosi (D-Calif.), required by law, Trump indicated, without specifying a cause, that he had lost confidence in Linick.

Trump sent Christi Grimm, the Acting IG of Health and Human Services, packing soon after she issued a report in April (based on a survey of 323 hospitals) documenting COVID-19 testing delays and severe shortages of supplies. Insisting, without evidence, that the findings were “wrong,” the president castigated Grimm, “who spent 8 years with the Obama administration,” for not consulting “admirals, generals, VP, and others in charge… Another Fake Dossier.” For the record, Grimm, like Linick, served in Republican as well as Democratic administrations.

Apparently, Glenn Fine, Acting IG of the Defense Department, got the kill the messenger axe because the president feared that as head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Commission, he would be tough on the administration.

In dumping Michael Atkinson, IG for the Intelligence Community, Trump declared, inaccurately, “He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report and brought it to Congress, with an emergency… Okay — not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.”

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Asked about the IG purges, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany took a sentence out of Trump’s “whatabout” playbook: “No one seemed to care,” she said, when President Obama fired Gerald Walpin, IG of the Corporation for National and Community Service. McEnany didn’t explain why she thought this “precedent” justified Trump’s actions.

President Trump’s contempt for public servants and for facts is, of course, not limited to Inspectors General. The most recent example occurred last week, when the president told reporters he was ignoring CDC guidance and taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure. He claimed that a U.S. Veterans Health Administration study, which found that the drug didn’t help mitigate the virus’s effect and may have increased overall mortality on seriously ill patients, was “a Trump enemy statement.”

During the most profound health crisis in this country’s history, when it’s clear that government matters, federal agencies are being hollowed out, policy is being politicized, conscientious and competent public servants are disappearing — along with oversight and accountability — and “alternative facts” are shaping public opinion. Far more dangerous to our democracy than COVID-19, this virus is spreading.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.