Trump Is Gutting Our Democracy While We’re Dealing With Coronavirus


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By Noah Bookbinder

Mr. Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, on Capitol Hill last fall.
Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, on Capitol Hill last fall.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

When President Trump announced late on Friday that he would fire the government watchdog who told Congress about the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint, which ultimately led to his impeachment, it touched off one of the most acute threats yet to our democracy. But it didn’t even make the front page of most papers.

That’s understandable. Thousands of Americans are dying every day from the terrifying coronavirus pandemic. People are worried about their own safety and that of their families, as well as about their jobs and livelihood. Questions abound about how the crisis got to this point, whether the Trump administration took appropriate steps to address it and what steps are needed to minimize the devastation going forward; there is little bandwidth for anything else.

But we can’t afford to ignore the anti-democratic steps the president is taking while the American people are appropriately preoccupied with this outbreak. If we don’t respond to these outrageous abuses now, the damage may be done by the time anyone is the wiser.

The worst of the president’s latest round of steps to undermine checks and balances came not just in this time of crisis, but on a Friday night, the classic black hole for sweeping problematic actions in Washington under the rug.

First, the president announced that he would be firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community. Mr. Trump said in a required letter to Congress that he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in Atkinson; there was not even an effort to disguise the fact that what caused the president to lose that confidence was Atkinson following the law and allowing the truth to come out about Mr. Trump’s lawless attempt to pressure a foreign power to announce politically helpful investigations. Mr. Atkinson will be fired 30 days after the letter went to Congress, the soonest he can be under law, but the president undercut even that law by putting Mr. Atkinson on immediate administrative leave.

Michael Horowitz, the respected inspector general of the Department of Justice and chairman of a council that coordinates inspectors general, went out on a limb to vouch for Mr. Atkinson, praising his integrity and his handling of the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint. Mr. Horowitz is right, and his affirmation that the inspector general community “will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight” is heartening.

But President Trump’s further action makes that claim questionable at best. The president compounded the Atkinson announcement on Friday night with his intention to nominate White House lawyer Brian Miller to be special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a key position for oversight of the just-passed $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, which is ripe for fraud and corruption without aggressive review. The position demands ironclad independence, particularly with the risk that the president’s company, relatives, customers and donors could seek to benefit from the stimulus package. Mr. Miller, who served for nearly 10 years as inspector general at the General Services Administration, but more recently played a role in the White House’s response to the impeachment inquiry, is precisely the wrong person to ensure independence. A former senior Senate staff member praised Miller’s “loyalty to the administration” in explaining why he’ll make a good choice, even though loyalty is the exact opposite of what is needed.

The one-two punch of Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Miller is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg of the president’s dangerous attacks on the independence of inspectors general. Mr. Trump will likely fire additional inspectors general because he and his allies view them as “deep state” operatives who undermine him. Indeed, the president seems to view any independence within the government and certainly any checks on him as intolerable disloyalty; that notion, of course, runs counter to our entire system of checks and balances.

Friday night’s actions came at the end of a week of scary departures from democratic practices. Reporting indicates that more and more power has gone to the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose coronavirus “shadow task force” of government allies and private sector connections may run afoul of federal law. Mr. Kushner is meanwhile also reportedly playing a significant role in the Trump re-election campaign from the White House, which may also violate federal law. Nepotism and disregard for the law have characterized this administration from day one, but the volume and brazenness of these anti-democratic tendencies is increasing.

Indeed, earlier Friday, the government changed its description on a federal website of the strategic national stockpile to correspond to Mr. Kushner’s description of it as being for the benefit of the federal government, not the states. Also last week, the Navy fired a captain who blew the whistle on the scope of a Covid-19 outbreak on his ship, another example of apparent payback for truthtelling, and the president reportedly wants to have his own signature on stimulus checks to Americans, which may also run afoul of law. All of these autocratic steps come on top of the president’s February purges of officials who testified in the impeachment trial and attempts to meddle in the sentencing of friends and allies convicted of crimes.

Here’s why this matters: times of crisis are when democracies are in the gravest danger of crumbling. We are seeing that play out in the world right now. Hungary, which has watched its hard won post-Cold War democratic reforms slipping away for some time, this week saw its Parliament give Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom Mr. Trump has praised, unlimited authority, effectively turning the country into a dictatorship. Dictators around the world are using the pandemic to tighten their control.

We’re not there yet. But the president’s attempts to rid the government of those who would provide appropriate oversight and accountability for abuses and speak truth to power, to put in place loyalists who will look out for him rather than providing independent checks, and to empower relatives and disregard laws sets us on a dangerous trajectory. Firing inspectors general and replacing them with loyalists is a serious threat to our democracy. The American people must register our outrage; Congress must investigate the firings aggressively and rigorously vet nominees. If we ignore the erosion of checks and balances because we are preoccupied with more immediate concerns, we may find that our democracy — when we need the institutions of this country the most — is disappearing. Just ask Hungary.

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Jared Kushner Is Going to Get Us All Killed


Trump’s son-in-law has no business running the coronavirus response.

Michelle Goldberg

By Michelle Goldberg

Jared Kushner in March. He made his debut at the White House coronavirus briefing on Thursday. 
Jared Kushner in March. He made his debut at the White House coronavirus briefing on Thursday. Credit…Pool photo by Evan Vucci

Reporting on the White House’s herky-jerky coronavirus response, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has a quotation from Jared Kushner that should make all Americans, and particularly all New Yorkers, dizzy with terror.

According to Sherman, when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that the state would need 30,000 ventilators at the apex of the coronavirus outbreak, Kushner decided that Cuomo was being alarmist. “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity,” Kushner reportedly said. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top expert on infectious diseases, has said he trusts Cuomo’s estimate.)

Even now, it’s hard to believe that someone with as little expertise as Kushner could be so arrogant, but he said something similar on Thursday, when he made his debut at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing: “People who have requests for different products and supplies, a lot of them are doing it based on projections which are not the realistic projections.”

Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was born to the right parents, married well and learned how to influence his father-in-law. Most of his other endeavors — his biggest real estate deal, his foray into newspaper ownership, his attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians — have been failures.

Undeterred, he has now arrogated to himself a major role in fighting the epochal health crisis that’s brought America to its knees. “Behind the scenes, Kushner takes charge of coronavirus response,” said a Politico headline on Wednesday.

This is dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy.

The journalist Andrea Bernstein looked closely at Kushner’s business record for her recent book “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power,” speaking to people on all sides of his real estate deals as well as those who worked with him at The New York Observer, the weekly newspaper he bought in 2006.

Kushner, Bernstein told me, “really sees himself as a disrupter.” Again and again, she said, people who’d dealt with Kushner told her that whatever he did, he “believed he could do it better than anybody else, and he had supreme confidence in his own abilities and his own judgment even when he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this confidence is unearned. Kushner was a reportedly mediocre student whose billionaire father appears to have bought him a place at Harvard. Taking over the family real estate company after his father was sent to prison, Kushner paid $1.8 billion — a record, at the time — for a Manhattan skyscraper at the very top of the real estate market in 2007. The debt from that project became a crushing burden for the family business. (Kushner was able to restructure the debt in 2011, and in 2018 the project was bailed out by a Canadian asset management company with links to the government of Qatar.) He gutted the once-great New York Observer, then made a failed attempt to create a national network of local politics websites.

His forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for which he boasted of reading a whole 25 books — have left the dream of a two-state solution on life support. Michael Koplow of the centrist Israel Policy Forum described Kushner’s plan for the Palestinian economy as “the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Now, in our hour of existential horror, Kushner is making life-or-death decisions for all Americans, showing all the wisdom we’ve come to expect from him.

“Mr. Kushner’s early involvement with dealing with the virus was in advising the president that the media’s coverage exaggerated the threat,” reported The Times. It was apparently at Kushner’s urging that Trump announced, falsely, that Google was about to launch a website that would link Americans with coronavirus testing. (As The Atlantic reported, a health insurance company co-founded by Kushner’s brother — which Kushner once owned a stake in — tried to build such a site, before the project was “suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.”)

The president was reportedly furious over the website debacle, but Kushner’s authority hasn’t been curbed. Politico reported that Kushner, “alongside a kitchen cabinet of outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants, has taken charge of the most important challenges facing the federal government,” including the production and distribution of medical supplies and the expansion of testing. Kushner has embedded his own people in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a senior official described them to The Times as “a ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.”

Disaster response requires discipline and adherence to a clear chain of command, not the move-fast-and-break-things approach of start-up culture. Even if Kushner “were the most competent person in the world, which he clearly isn’t, introducing these kind of competing power centers into a crisis response structure is a guaranteed problem,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a former U.S.A.I.D. official who helped manage the response to the Ebola crisis during Barack Obama’s administration, told me. “So you could have Trump and Kushner and Pence and the governors all be the smartest people in the room, but if there are multiple competing power centers trying to drive this response, it’s still going to be chaos.”

Competing power centers are a motif of this administration, and its approach to the pandemic is no exception. As The Washington Post reported, Kushner’s team added “another layer of confusion and conflicting signals within the White House’s disjointed response to the crisis.” Nor does his operation appear to be internally coherent. “Projects are so decentralized that one team often has little idea what others are doing — outside of that they all report up to Kushner,” reported Politico.

On Thursday, Governor Cuomo said that New York would run out of ventilators in six days. Perhaps Kushner’s projections were incorrect. “I don’t think the federal government is in a position to provide ventilators to the extent the nation may need them,” Cuomo said. “Assume you are on your own in life.” If not in life, certainly in this administration.

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