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Trump’s petty vindictiveness on full display despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

As we know, even in the midst of a national emergency, Donald Trump could find time and bandwidth to continue his retribution campaign.

He dismissed Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence agencies, for doing “a terrible job,” satisfying his own thirst for vengeance for anyone who actually adhered to law and practice over blind loyalty to Trump himself. Indeed, asked about it the next day, Trump underscored his action by saying, Atkinson “was no Trump supporter, that I can tell you.”

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It was an act that we once would have labeled corruption, by Democrats and Republicans – that is using the office for personal purposes – if Congress and too many Americans had not since become inured by so many like instances.

The firing of the inspector general for the intelligence agencies reflects the continuing Trump insistence for personal loyalty over experience of almost any kind.

The reason this particular act still sticks in the craw is not only because of the timing, but because it reflects the continuing Trump insistence for personal loyalty over experience of almost any kind. It is exactly that kind of attitude that has led to such confusion in messaging and such bureaucratic delays in addressing both coronavirus effects and the economic mess it has created.

Governors and medical personnel are complaining loudly about a reality at total odds with Trump’s description of the current state of crisis response. We see a White House rewrite of recent history to glorify the Trump administration while the emerging record shows a documented case of delay and confusion.

At heart: a disdain for science and expertise.

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Once Congress reconvenes later this month, we have other such cases lining up in bad judicial appointments and national security appointments who no experience.

Trump has nominated Judge Justin Walker, a counselor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, despite less than six months as a district court judge and an “unqualified” rating from the American Bar. Trump also announced that Stephen Feinberg, a New York billionaire who owns military contractor DynCorp International, will chair a White House executive board that reviews the effectiveness and legality of foreign intelligence, again with no particular experience but a lot of loyalty.

Ratcliffe Redux

All this reflects the preliminaries before we take our ringside seats to look in as Trump nominee Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican with absolutely no credentials, comes before the Republican-majority Senate for confirmation as director of national intelligence.

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By contrast, Trump’s appointment of Rep. Mark Meadows, his most ardent congressional defender from North Carolina, as White House chief of staff, required no such Senate approval.

For me, it is especially interesting to see these changes come about now, just after having finished reading “A Very Stable Genius” by Washington Post reporters Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig, a book that underscores the Wild West spontaneity of an uncontrolled West Wing. And, the change comes as this White House has reflected an unparalleled inability to manage national effects of a global coronavirus panic.

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Apart from the skill-sets of the new appointees, it is notable just how many senior officials and cabinet officers this White House has churned through, and Trump’s preference to use acting titles for more and more appointees just to avoid Senate review.

That review should prove particularly important this time since Ratcliffe’s name was withdrawn previously for lying about his record as a prosecutor in Texas, and now has been put forward only because the temporary holder of the job, Richard Grenell, the controversial ambassador to Germany, is even less qualified.

Bad or Worse

The Washington Post editorialized against approval of Ratcliffe, a rabid defender of Trump during the House impeachment proceedings, as being an aggressive attacker of the findings of U.S. intelligence services – as is the wont of Donald Trump.

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Actually, the editorial went further, rejecting the false and bad choice being offered through Ratcliffe’s nomination.

The editorial noted that Trump believes he can force the Senate to swallow his choice, because the alternative is to retain the even more objectionable Grenell — despite having absolutely no experience in the intelligence world and a record of insulting Europeans.

As the appropriate federal rules prescribe, if Ratcliff is not confirmed.  Grenell can remain in the post for seven more months. Trump would force the Senate to choose between the two.

In replacing Joseph Maguire, a former SEAL, both Grenell and Ratcliffe are Trump loyalists first, and ill-equipped to oversee 17 government intelligence agencies. Last summer, the previous Ratcliffe nomination lasted five days before withdrawing, an act drawing approval from senators from both parties. They said he lacked any qualifications for the job – and had lied about his successful prosecution of terrorists cases in which he was never involved.

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When he scrapped the appointment, Trump conceded that the White House had never vetted Ratcliffe before nominating him.

Maybe Mark Meadows can take care of that part this time.

Conspiracy Nuts

Both Ratcliff and Grenell have disputed intelligence agency findings that Russia intervened in the 2016 election — or since — to aid Trump. Ratcliffe has promoted the conspiracy theory that the investigation into the meddling was the result of “a secret society of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI” trying to prevent Trump’s election. During the House impeachment hearings, Ratcliffe demanded an investigation of the whistleblower in the Ukraine matters. As director of national intelligence, Ratcliffe presumably could just order such an investigation himself.

Trump fired the previous acting director, Joseph Maguire, after a member of his staff briefed the House Intelligence Committee that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump in 2020. The absence of such reporting in the coming months would, no doubt, make interference easier.

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Clearly, the question for Republican senators is whether to politicize the workings of intelligence for a president who does not even want to sit through briefings.

They could easily just insist on a more qualified candidate.

If coronavirus has no other effect, perhaps it can underscore the country’s need for competence over Trump personal loyalty.

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