Politicizing Independent Institutions

Politicizing Independent Institutions

The US has many independent institutions — like law enforcement and the civil service — that have a fundamentally nonpolitical job to do and that are expected to perform that work competently and without political bias. Trump has managed to co-opt such institutions to an alarming degree. We must stop him to prevent a further consolidation of his power at the expense of the integrity and usefulness of our nation’s institutions and our shared democracy.

Below are excerpts from a along article about how Trump is corrupting the civil Service, and links to articles about Trump’s corruption of the Justice Department, security institutions, and national health information.

The Civil Service
Atlantic Monthly – April 2020 – The president is winning his war on American institutions – How Trump is destroying the civil service and bending the government to his will. By George Packer.

“This is the story of how a great republic went soft in the middle, lost the integrity of its guts and fell in on itself—told through government officials whose names under any other president would have remained unknown, who wanted no fame, and who faced existential questions when Trump set out to break them.”

Section 1 is “‘We’re Not Nazis'”, about Erica Newland, formerly of the US Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

“Days after Trump’s inauguration, Newland’s new boss, Curtis Gannon, the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, gave a seal of approval to the president’s ban, bigoted if not illegal, on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries.”

” A civil service that rotates with the party in power would be a reversion to the 19th-century spoils system, whose notorious corruption led to the 1883 Pendleton Act, which created the modern merit-based, politically insulated civil service.”

“Things got worse in the second year. It seemed as if more than half of the Office of Legal Counsel’s work involved limiting the rights of noncitizens. The atmosphere of open discussion dissipated. The political appointees at the top, some of whom had voiced skepticism early on about the legality of certain policies, were readier to make excuses for Trump, to give his fabrications the benefit of the doubt. Among career officials, fear set in. They saw what was happening to colleagues in the FBI who had crossed the president during the investigation into Russian election interference—careers and reputations in ruins. For those with security clearances, speaking up, or even offering a snarky eye roll, felt particularly risky, because the bar for withdrawing a clearance was low. Steven Engel, appointed to lead the office, was a Trump loyalist who made decisions without much consultation. Newland’s colleagues found less and less reason to advance arguments that they knew would be rejected. People began to shut up.”

The article recounts an episode where Newland took a White House press release “What you need to know about the violent animals of MS-13”, which used the word “animals” more than ten times to the lunchroom. No one wanted to talk about it.

“[Newland:] ‘It’s a White House press release and I’m happy to explain why it bothers me.’ The conversation quickly became awkward, and then muted. Colleagues who had shared Newland’s dismay in private now remained silent. It was the last time she joined them in the lunchroom.”

“In 1968, James C. Thomson, a former Asia expert in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, published an essay in this magazine called “How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy.” Among the reasons Thomson gave for the war was “the ‘effectiveness’ trap”—the belief among officials that it’s usually wisest to accept the status quo”

Newland’s description of the Office of Legal Counsel under Trump:

“Loyalty to the president was equated with legality. ‘There was hardly any respect for the other departments of government—not for the lower courts, not for Congress, and certainly not for the bureaucracy, for professionalism, for facts or the truth,’ she told me. ‘Corruption is the right word for this. It doesn’t have to be pay-to-play to be corrupt. It’s a departure from the oath.'”

Section 2 is “Cashing In”, about using political career experience and connections to make money in the private sector.

“There’s always been corruption in Washington, and everywhere that power can be found, but it became institutionalized starting in the late 1970s and early ’80s, with the rise of the lobbying industry.”

“Former members of Congress and their aides cashed in as lobbyists. Retired military officers cashed in with defense contractors. Justice Department officials cashed in at high-paying law firms. Former diplomats cashed in by representing foreign interests as lobbyists or public-relations strategists. A few years high up in the Justice Department could translate into tens of millions of dollars in the private sector.”

“The revolving door didn’t necessarily induce individual officeholders to betray their oath—they might be scrupulously faithful public servants between turns at the trough. But, on a deeper level, the money aligned government with plutocracy. It also made the public indiscriminately cynical. And as the public’s trust in institutions plunged, the status of bureaucrats fell with it.”

Section 3 is “‘How is your Wife?'”, about Andrew McNabe, formerly #2 at the FBI and for a short time acting director

While Trump was running for President:
“Jill McCabe, a pediatric emergency-room doctor, had run for a seat in the Virginia Senate as a Democrat in 2015 in order to work for Medicaid expansion for poor patients. She lost the race. On October 23, 2016, two weeks before the presidential election, The Wall Street Journal revealed that her campaign had received almost $700,000 from the Virginia Democratic Party and the political-action fund of Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton friend who had encouraged her to run. ‘Clinton Ally Aided Campaign of FBI Official’s Wife,’ read the headline, with more innuendo than substance. McCabe had properly insulated himself from the campaign and knew nothing about the donations. FBI ethics people had cleared him to oversee the Clinton investigation, which he didn’t start doing until months after Jill’s race had ended. One had nothing to do with the other. But Trump tweeted about the Journal story, and on October 24 he enraged a crowd in St. Augustine, Florida, with the made-up news that Clinton had corrupted the bureau and bought her way out of jail through’the spouse—the wife—of the top FBI official who helped oversee the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s illegal email server.’ He snarled and narrowed his eyes, he tightened his lips and shook his head, he walked away from the microphone in disgust, and the crowd shrieked its hatred for Clinton and the rigged system.”

“Within a few days, The Wall Street Journal was preparing to run a second story with damaging information about the FBI and McCabe—this time, that he had told agents to “stand down” in a secret investigation with the Clinton Foundation.” …

“As Trump prepared to take power, the Russia investigation closed in on people around him, beginning with Michael Flynn, his choice for national security adviser, who lied to FBI agents about phone calls with the Russian ambassador. Trump made it clear that he expected the FBI to drop the Flynn case and shield the White House from the tightening circle of investigation. At a White House dinner for two, the new president told his FBI director that he wanted loyalty. Comey replied with a promise of honesty. Trump then asked if McCabe ‘has a problem with me. I was pretty rough on him and his wife during the campaign.” Comey called McCabe “a true professional,’ adding: ‘FBI people, whatever their personal views, they strip them away when they step into their bureau roles.'”

During a conversation with Trump directly after he’d fired Comey:

“’Your only problem is that one mistake you made,’ McCabe later recalled Trump saying. “That thing with your wife. That one mistake.” McCabe said nothing, and Trump went on: ‘That was the only problem with you. I was very hard on you during my campaign. That money from the Clinton friend—I was very hard. I said a lot of tough things about your wife in the campaign.'”

“’I know,’ McCabe replied. ‘We heard what you said.’ He told Trump that Jill was a dedicated doctor, that running for office had been another way for her to try to help her patients. He and their two teenage children had completely supported her decision.

“’Oh, yeah, yeah. She’s great. Everybody I know says she’s great. You were right to support her. Everybody tells me she’s a terrific person.’”

The next morning:

“The president was upset that McCabe had allowed Comey to fly back from Los Angeles on the FBI’s official plane after being fired. McCabe explained the decision, and Trump exploded: ‘That’s not right! I never approved that!’ He didn’t want Comey allowed into headquarters—into any FBI building. Trump raged on. Then he said, ‘How is your wife?’

“‘She’s fine.’

‘When she lost her election, that must have been very tough to lose. How did she handle losing? Is it tough to lose?’

“McCabe said that losing had been difficult but that Jill was back to taking care of children in the emergency room.

“’Yeah, that must have been really tough,’ the president told his new FBI director. ‘To lose. To be a loser.’”

“‘It elevates the pressure of this idea of loyalty,’ McCabe told me recently. ‘If I can actually insult your wife and you still agree with me or go along with whatever it is I want you to do, then I have you. I have split the husband and the wife. He first tried to separate me from Comey—”You didn’t agree with him, right?” He tried to separate me from the institution—”Everyone’s happy at the FBI, right?” He boxes you into a corner to try to get you to accept and embrace whatever bullshit he’s selling, and if he can do that, then he knows you’re with him.’”

“Comey’s firing, and the White House lies about the reason—that it was over the Clinton email case, when all the evidence pointed to the Russia investigation—raised the specter of obstruction of justice. On May 15, McCabe met with his top aides—Baker, Lisa Page, and two others—and concluded that they had to open an investigation into Trump himself. They had to find out whether the president had been working in concert with Russia and covering it up.”

“The tweets abruptly resumed on July 25: ‘Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!’ By now Trump knew McCabe’s name, but Jill would always be the ‘wife.’ The next day, more tweets: ‘Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got … big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!'”

“The purpose of Trump’s tweets was not just to punish McCabe for opening the investigation, but to taint the case. ‘He attacks people to make his misdeeds look like they were okay,’ Jill said. ‘If Andrew was corrupt, then the investigation was corrupt and the investigation was wrong. So they needed to do everything they could to prove Andrew McCabe was corrupt and a liar.’”

“The extraordinary rush to get rid of McCabe ahead of his retirement, with the president baying for his scalp, appalled many lawyers both in and out of government. ‘To engineer the process that way is an unforgivable politicization of the department,’ the legal expert Benjamin Wittes told me. McCabe lost most of his pension. He became unemployable, and ‘radioactive’ among his former colleagues—almost no one at headquarters would have contact with him. Worst of all, the Justice Department referred the inspector general’s report to the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C. A criminal indictment in such cases is almost unheard of, but the sword of the law hung over McCabe’s head for two years, an abnormally long time, while prosecutors hardly uttered a word. Last September, McCabe learned from media reports that a grand jury had been convened to vote on an indictment. He and Jill told their children that their father might be handcuffed, the house might be searched, he might even be jailed. The grand jury met, and the grand jury went home, and nothing happened. The silence implied that the jurors had found no grounds to indict. One of the prosecutors dropped off the case, unusual at such a crucial stage, and another left for the private sector, reportedly unhappy about political pressure. Still, the U.S. Attorney’s Office kept the case open until mid-February, when it was abruptly dropped.”

“Every member of the FBI leadership who investigated Trump has been forced out of government service, along with officials in the Justice Department, and subjected to a campaign of vilification. Even James Baker, who was never accused of wrongdoing, found himself too controversial to be hired in the private sector.”

Section 4 is called “Ends and Means”, about Attorney General William Barr’s radicalism.

“Barr and Trump are collaborating to destroy the independence of anything that could restrain the president.”

Section 5 is called “‘No Statement'”, about the State Department.

“Under Pompeo, 42 percent of ambassadors are political appointees, an all-time high (before the Trump presidency the number was about 30 percent). They ‘are chosen for their loyalty to Trump,’ Elizabeth Jones, a retired career ambassador, told me.”

“The story of how the first family, Rudy Giuliani, his two former business associates, a pair of discredited Ukrainian prosecutors, and the right-wing media orchestrated a smear campaign to force Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch out of her post in Kyiv because she stood in the way of their corrupt schemes has become famous as the origin of Trump’s impeachment. The story of how Yovanovitch’s colleagues in the State Department responded to the crisis is less well known. It reveals the full range of behavior among officials under unprecedented pressure from the top. It shows how an agency with a long, proud history can be hollowed out and broken by its own leaders.”

” … on March 20, The Hill, a Washington newspaper, published an interview with Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the dirty Ukrainian prosecutors who had been thwarted by Yovanovitch. Lutsenko accused her of trying to stop legitimate prosecutions. The article also reported that the ambassador was heard to have openly criticized Trump. The president retweeted the story, which was composed almost entirely of lies. …”

“On the same day the first Hill story about Yovanovitch was published, diGenova appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and said that Yovanovitch ‘has bad-mouthed the president of the United States to Ukrainian officials and has told them not to listen or worry about Trump policy because he’s going to be impeached. This woman needs to be called home to the United States—’ ‘Oh, immediately,’ Hannity interjected.”

“The State Department called The Hill’s original story a “complete fabrication.” But as the lies spread among conservative media, triggering a barrage of attacks, …”

“Yovanovitch felt that she couldn’t do it [release a statement about her loyalty to Trump, as some in the State Department had suggested]. Like Erica Newland, she had taken an oath to defend the Constitution, not the president. Instead of tweeting allegiance to Trump, Yovanovitch recorded a public service announcement urging Ukrainians to vote in that country’s upcoming presidential election. She tried to connect this civic duty to her role as a nonpartisan government official. ‘Diplomats like me make a pledge to serve whomever the American people, our fellow citizens, choose,’ she told the camera. Presidents Bush and Obama had both appointed her to ambassadorships, ‘and I promote and carry out the policies of President Trump and his administration. This is one of the marks of a true democracy.'”

“On April 21 Volodymyr Zelensky, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide. Right away, the White House let Pompeo know that Trump wanted Yovanovitch gone. The media storm kicked up again.” Yovanovitch was ordered to leave the Ukraine.

“When, in late May, Giuliani resumed his campaign of lies, telling Ukrainian journalists that Yovanovitch and Kent were part of a plot against Trump led by George Soros, there was no rebuttal from the State Department.”

“On July 25, after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, Trump called Zelensky and asked for ‘a favor’—an investigation of the Bidens that was tantamount to Ukrainian interference in the U.S. presidential campaign in exchange for the release of American military aid and a personal meeting in the Oval Office.”

The attacks against her continued.

“On March 24, unable to function in her post, Yovanovitch wrote a desperate email to David Hale. She asked for a statement from the secretary of state saying that she had his full confidence, that she spoke for the president and the country.”

“The next day, at a weekly meeting of senior officials in the secretary’s office, Hale brought up Yovanovitch’s request. Pompeo was confronted with a dilemma—stand up for his people or appease the White House. He solved it by punting, saying that no statement would be made on her behalf until Giuliani, Hannity, and others were asked for their evidence. Later that week Hale sent word to the European bureau: ‘No statement.'”

“On September 25, the White House released a rough transcript of the July 25 call. In it, Trump said that ‘the former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news’ and ‘she’s going to go through some things.’ During the impeachment inquiry Hale explained, in high bureaucratese, ‘That was not an operational comment that had been operationalized in any way.’”

“At the state department, Ambassador Michael McKinley read the transcript and had a visceral, almost physical reaction: He was appalled. McKinley was Pompeo’s senior adviser, having been brought back from his post in Brazil to serve as a link between the secretary and the Foreign Service. He and Hale were the only career officers among the department’s leadership, … ”

“In the last days of September, McKinley kept pushing for a statement praising Yovanovitch’s professionalism and courage. He heard from eight or 10 colleagues that the State Department’s silence in the face of an ugly presidential attack was demoralizing. On September 28 he emailed five senior colleagues, including Hale, insisting that the department needed to say something. Four wrote back agreeing. Hale didn’t reply; he told a colleague that he didn’t think McKinley’s effort would go anywhere. A few hours later Pompeo’s spokesperson informed McKinley that, in order to protect Yovanovitch from undue attention, the secretary would not release a statement.”

“Before leaving, McKinley paid a visit to Hale and told him, one Foreign Service officer to another, that the department’s silence was having a terrible effect on morale. Hale flatly disagreed—he asserted that morale was high. Afterward, Hale met with Pompeo and identified a different threat to morale—McKinley’s negativity.”

“David Hale, pale and terse, also testified. Toward the end of his testimony, Democratic Representative Denny Heck of Washington begged Hale to say that Yovanovitch was a courageous patriot and that what had happened to her was wrong. Hale’s voice faltered as he replied, ‘I believe that she should have been able to stay at post and continue to do the outstanding work—’

“Heck wasn’t having it. ‘What happened to her was wrong?’

“’That’s right,’ Hale said.

“Bureaucrats never received such public praise as they did during the weeks of the impeachment inquiry. But the hearings left a misleading impression. The Ukraine story, like the Russia story before it, did not represent a morality tale in which truth and honor stood up to calumny and corruption and prevailed. Yovanovitch is gone, and so is her replacement, William Taylor Jr., and so are McKinley and others—Lieutenant Colonel Vindman was marched out of the White House in early February—while Pompeo is still there and, above him, so is the president. Trump is winning.”

“In his fourth year in power, Trump has largely succeeded in making the executive branch work on his personal behalf. He hasn’t done it by figuring out how to operate the bureaucratic levers of power, or by installing leaders with a vision of policy that he shares, or by channeling a popular groundswell into government action. He’s done it by punishing perceived enemies, co‑opting craven allies, and driving out career officials of competence and integrity. The result is a thin layer of political loyalists on top of a cowed bureaucracy.”

“One of every 14 political appointees in the Trump administration is a lobbyist; they largely run domestic policy. Trump’s biggest donors now have easy access to agency heads and to the president himself, as they swell his reelection coffers. In the last quarter of 2019, while being impeached, Trump raised nearly $50 million. His corruption of power, unprecedented in recent American history, only compounds the money corruption that first created the swamp. … ”

“Within the federal government, career officials are weighing outside job opportunities against their pension plans and their commitment to their oaths. More than 1,000 scientists have left the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and other agencies, according to The Washington Post. Almost 80 percent of employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have quit. The Labor Department has made deep cuts in the number of safety inspectors, and worker deaths nationwide have increased dramatically, while recalls of unsafe consumer products have dropped off. When passing laws and changing regulations prove onerous, the Trump administration simply guts the government of expertise so that basic functions wither away, the well-connected feed on the remains, and the survivors keep their heads down, until the day comes when they face the same choice as McCabe and Yovanovitch: do Trump’s dirty work or be destroyed.”

The Justice Department
Center for American Progress: Trump’s Politicization of the Justice Department

JustSecurity.org: The Politicization of our security institutions

Statnews.com: July 2020: The CDC is an apolitical organization. That’s left it defenseless against Trump.

Comments are closed.