Under Cover of Covid-19, Donald Trump Ramps Up His War on Truth-Tellers

The president’s Stalinist purge at the height of the coronavirus pandemic exemplifies his dysfunction and vindictiveness.

Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, departs a closed-door hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

Michael Atkinson, the then-inspector general for the intelligence community, departs a closed-door hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4, 2019.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via Redux

Three years into his presidency, Donald Trump’s corruption and blatant politicization have reached into every corner of the government. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed thousands of Americans, it’s more clear than ever that the officials who stayed in public service to try to curb Trump’s worst abuses are becoming his most numerous victims.

Hoping that the country is too distracted by Covid-19 to notice, Trump has over the last few days engaged in a Stalinist purge of truth-tellers, leaving the survivors frightened and intimidated even as the federal government is shown to be too weak to counter the rampaging coronavirus.

Last week, Trump fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson. Atkinson’s sin was that he took seriously a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s illegal scheme to get Ukraine to meddle in the 2020 presidential election on his behalf.

Last year, Atkinson concluded that the whistleblower’s complaint was both credible and urgent, and should be shared with Congress, which ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. A mountain of evidence confirmed the whistleblower’s complaint and vindicated Atkinson’s decision to tell Congress about it.

“It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General,” Atkinson wrote in a statement. He urged whistleblowers to continue to come forward: “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”

Atkinson’s firing is just the latest in a series of attempts by Trump to decapitate the intelligence community and place it under the control of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the clammy thug who has gained power over most of the national security apparatus by sucking up to Trump more compulsively than any of his rivals.

In the wake of Atkinson’s firing, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff wrote a scathing letter to Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, pointing out that every Senate-appointed official in the DNI has now been removed, making it impossible for the intelligence community to function. The only problem with Schiff’s letter was that he had to address it to Grenell, an empty suit who is temporarily filling the job of director after replacing yet another “acting” national intelligence director in February. Replacing “acting” officials with more “acting” officials is part of Trump’s ongoing strategy to fill the government with unqualified yes-men.

Trump’s dysfunctional leadership style is to rant and rave in public over the slightest hint of criticism. That explains why the popular captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier was relieved of command last week after pleading for help as Covid-19 ravaged his crew.

Replacing “acting” officials with more “acting” officials is part of Trump’s ongoing strategy to fill the government with unqualified yes-men.

The captain, Brett Crozier, had angered Trump by telling his superiors that the Navy wasn’t doing enough to protect its sailors. Crozier’s letter was promptly leaked to the media, embarrassing Navy brass, so Crozier had to go. On Monday, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, yet another Trump minion, flew to Guam and gave a profanity-laced speech to the carrier’s crew, in which he said that if Crozier hadn’t intended his letter to be leaked, the captain was “too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.” The audio of Modly’s speech was itself promptly leaked to the press, and Modly was forced to resign. In trying a little too hard to be like Trump, he had actually embarrassed the president.

Trump began the week by ousting the chair of the federal panel created by Congress to oversee the management of the $2 trillion stimulus package designed to offset the economic impact of the pandemic. Trump removed Glenn Fine before he could even start his new job because he discovered that Fine had been the acting inspector general of the Pentagon and previously served as the longtime inspector general for the Justice Department. In other words, he was afraid that Fine had enough experience to actually know how to do his job and therefore, could conduct real oversight of the massive spending bill.

At around the same time, Trump publicly attacked the inspector general for Health and Human Services for issuing a report that showed that hospitals around the nation faced severe shortages of Covid-19 tests and related supplies.

Trump views anyone who tells the truth as an enemy who must be crushed. Since the onset of the pandemic, he has often assaulted the truth in the middle of White House press briefings. That the docile White House press corps has repeatedly let it happen with barely a murmur encourages Trump to keep it up.

In the middle of a press briefing on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the government’s top infectious disease expert, tried to answer a question about whether an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, could be an effective treatment for Covid-19. Trump has continuously touted the drug in public despite the fact that there is no conclusive proof of its usefulness and plenty of evidence of its harmful side effects. His heedless quackery threatens to kill thousands.

The last thing Trump wanted was for Fauci to tell the truth while standing next to him in front of the press, so Trump blocked him from answering the question and attacked reporters for asking about it. “You don’t have to ask the question again,” Trump told a reporter, while complaining that Fauci had already talked about the anti-malarial drug “15 times.”

Fauci has tried hard over the last few weeks to avoid directly contradicting Trump, particularly in official press briefings. He has instead used alternative media interviews — including a popular online chat with NBA star Stephen Curry — to try to get the truth out.

Yet the fact that Fauci must stand by and let Trump spout dangerous misinformation shows how Trump’s purges have intimidated the remaining professionals inside the government.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been almost completely sidelined from press briefings. Stat, a health and medicine news organization, noted that the CDC hasn’t given its own press briefing since March 9, after Trump and the White House took control of public messaging about the pandemic. “CDC experts, who held regular briefings to update the public about previous health threats such as the H1N1 flu pandemic and the Zika outbreak, have been silenced,” Stat reported.

Instead, CDC Director Robert Redfield, a conservative Christian appointed to his position in 2018, has mainly been giving interviews to local radio stations, in which he stresses the value of social distancing while avoiding directly contradicting Trump.

Trump has lied and spouted propaganda and conspiracy theories ever since he took office. In the last few days, he has intensified his war against the truth and anyone who speaks it. With Covid-19, we are witnessing the results.

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