So much for checks and balances.
Then Trump went after the executive branch, rooting out the deep state he is convinced is trying to get him.
He undermined the independence of the intelligence community that he blamed for what he calls the Russia “hoax.” He disparaged its work and questioned its conclusions when they diverged from his preferred outcomes. As Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) wrote last month, Trump pushed out officials, including two directors of national intelligence and the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, “because they had the temerity to brief the president and Congress about threats to the United States that are politically inconvenient to Trump.”
In their stead, he installed or sought to install political hacks, naming as acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany who has scant intelligence experience but a seemingly bottomless willingness to defend the president on television and social media, and nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), who before Grenell’s selection was widely described as the least qualified person ever tapped for the position.
And in the brutal aftermath of impeachment, an emboldened Trump, acquitted by the Senate, wreaked his revenge on those who had the temerity to testify against him, firing U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and having armed guards march Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman out of the White House, where he had been detailed to the National Security Council, along with his twin brother, for good measure.
In recent weeks, pandemic notwithstanding, Trump has turned his attention to inspectors general — the supposedly independent watchdogs entrusted with preventing fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement at government agencies. He began, predictably enough, with Michael K. Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general. Atkinson had the integrity — disloyalty, as Trump saw it — to report to Congress, as the law required, the whistleblower complaint about Trump and Ukraine that triggered the impeachment inquiry.
But that was just the start of Trump’s rampage against inspectors general. When Glenn A. Fine, acting inspector general at the Defense Department, was named to an additional role overseeing the spending of coronavirus relief funds, Trump ousted Fine from the Defense job, ensuring that he could not serve in the pandemic role. He engaged in a similar maneuver with Christi Grimm, acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, after her office criticized the administration’s response to the pandemic.
Then, on Friday night, Trump fired State Department inspector general Steve Linick, who had been investigating potential misuse of staff by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Presidents have the power to remove inspectors general, but this was a rare event in the pre-Trump era, with presidents wary of the political blowback from taking such a step. When President Barack Obama in 2009 fired Gerald Walpin, inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the removal of an obscure inspector general from a small agency became a Republican cause celebre.
Utah’s Mitt Romney, the only Senate Republican with a semblance of backbone, offered a succinct explanation of the danger of Trump’s actions: “The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” Romney wrote on Twitter. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”
This is, in a nutshell, what we have been witnessing from the very start of the Trump administration: a concerted and disturbingly successful effort to dismantle the multiple mechanisms of accountable democracy, and to tilt the constitutional balance in favor of the executive.
There is an exhaustion factor when it comes to chronicling Trump and his litany of abuses, but it is essential to go through this list to grasp the full scope of what he has been doing: bit by bit, disabling the institutions and individuals that could present an obstacle or cause him harm.
Congressional Republicans are cowed. The executive branch is purged and brought to heel. The courts — with the assiduous assistance of Senate Republicans — are stocked to the extent possible with Trump appointees. And Trump remains, ever less constrained, ever more empowered.