Seven Ways Trump Has Deepened His Corruption During COVID-19
Before COVID-19 struck, Donald Trump was already a deeply corrupt president — leveraging his presidential office to make money for his businesses, engaging in obstruction of the Russia investigation, pardoning cronies, pressuring Ukraine’s leader to launch a phony investigation of Democratic rival Joe Biden, and much more. But as with his incompetence, ignorance, bigotry, malevolence, and narcissism, Trump’s corruption has reached new heights during the coronavirus pandemic, both in his handling of the crisis itself and in his ongoing efforts to advance other corrupt aims.
Here are some of the worst examples, so far, of Trump, during the coronavirus crisis, acting out of corrupt, self-interested motives, rather than the interests of the American people he was supposed to protect:
— Musing About Pardoning Michael Flynn
Since he was charged in early 2017 with lying to the FBI about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn has maneuvered to avoid prison without giving prosecutors dirt on the president. With the public seeking a stronger focus on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, but with Flynn facing the possibility of an imminent prison sentence, Trump tweeted on March 15 that he is “strongly considering” a pardon for his former aide, a message to the general to stay strong and avoiding ratting out his former boss. Flynn is guilty of the crime, and he pled guilty, even if he has since tried to withdraw his guilty plea. Trump dangling a pardon to Flynn in these circumstances is textbook corruption. Doing so in the fog of COVID-19, hoping people won’t notice, makes it even worse.
— Firing Captain Crozier
Trump allowed the Navy to remove from command of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt Captain Brett Crozier, whose offense was to write his superiors seeking assistance as COVID-19 spread through the ship, endangering his crew. The letter became public, which may have embarrassed Crozier’s superiors. Firing a whistleblowing commander for fighting for the survival of his sailors in a pandemic is a troubling exercise of authority. Trump, who disgracefully intervened to grant clemency to Navy Seal and homicidal horror Eddie Gallagher, today praised the Navy decision to sack Captain Crozier, who left his ship to thunderous applause from his grateful crew.
— Firing the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General
Late Friday, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community, saying only that he had lost confidence in Atkinson. At today’s press briefing, Trump expanded his views, calling Atkinson “a total disgrace to IGs.” Trump had reportedly complained to aides that Atkinson was disloyal.
What did Atkinson do? He followed the law, and brought to Congress the complaint of an intelligence agency whistleblower that Trump had pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden — a complaint that was borne out by numerous witnesses and led to the House of Representatives impeaching Trump.
Inspectors general are not supposed to prioritize “loyalty” to the president; they are charged with upholding integrity, fighting corruption, and ensuring that government agencies and officials follow the law. Firing an inspector general for doing his job — by forwarding a whistleblower complaint against you — is blatant corruption.
Trump’s firing of Atkinson followed his removal of aides who testified to Congress about the Ukraine matter, including: National Security council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq war veteran; ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland; and Acting Director of National Intelligence Admiral Joseph Maguire, who also came under fire when a subordinate reportedly briefed members of Congress on Russian efforts to aid Trump’s reelection.
— Shaping the Relief Bill to Aid Donors and Cronies
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Trump allies in Congress ensured that the CARES COVID-19 relief act passed by Congress includes numerous benefits for special interests, from oil and gas companies to banks, airlines and hotels to health care companies, predatory for-profit colleges to real estate investors. Democrats fought for safeguards to tie aid to retention of workers, prohibition of stock buybacks, and other protections for working Americans, but they didn’t get nearly enough, as an army of K Street corporate lobbyists conspired with congressional Republicans to steer aid to the greediest, instead of the neediest.
Although the relief law bars businesses owned by Trump and other top officials from receiving aid from the Treasury Department’s relief fund, it includes a new real estate-related tax loophole that could benefit Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other family members.
Worse, Trump has now taken additional steps to reduce independent scrutiny of how the relief money will be spent.
Democrats in Congress insisted that the bill create at the Treasury Department a new inspector general for pandemic recovery, charged with ensuring that government grants and loans are awarded based on need and benefit to the economy, rather than Trump favoritism and cronyism. But when he signed the Care Act, Trump issued a signing statement declaring his supposed right to overrule a provision of the law requiring the inspector general to report to Congress if Treasury or another agency refuses to comply with a request for information.
And on Friday, Trump further thumbed his nose at Congress’s concern for independent oversight by selecting Brian Miller to be the new inspector general. Miller was, in fact, a long-time government inspector general, but now he is a Trump insider: He works for Trump in the White House counsel’s office, where he helped with the president’s impeachment defense effort.
Also Friday, Trump picked Jason Abend, currently a senior official at Customs and Border Protection, to be the Defense Department inspector general — another apparent effort to soften oversight of the pandemic relief effort. The current acting inspector general at the Pentagon is Glenn Fine, a former Justice Department inspector general known for this independence and integrity. This week, a government-wide panel of 75 inspectors general had named Fine the chair of the new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, aimed at ensuring integrity in the awarding of relief benefits. Abend’s appointment would cancel Fine’s role.
[UPDATE 04-02-20: Glenn Fine would have remained in the Defense job and also the pandemic chair role until the Senate confirmed Abend, but Trump today undermined that by replacing Fine as acting Pentagon IG with Sean O’Donnell, the EPA’s inspector general. O’Donnell will hold both jobs, for now. Trump also suggested on Monday that the Department of Health and Human Services’s IG, Christi Grimm, was politically biased against him after she released a report about the serious shortage of COVID-19 tests at U.S. hospitals.]
— Using COVID-19 As Excuse to Suspend Environment and Climate Change Regulations
Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced on March 26 that it was suspending enforcement and fines of environmental laws for anyone who can show that the COVID-19 pandemic was the cause of a failure to comply. This decree gives the fossil fuel industries a license to ignore its obligations to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s a terrible decision for many reasons. More air pollution makes people more susceptible to COVID-19. Pollution causes a wide range of other health problems. Climate change imperils health and safety for all of us, forever.
There’s no reason to think Trump, who welcomed top oil and gas CEOs to the White House on Friday, and whose Republican Party is fueled by industry donations, was upset about having to make this decision. Well before any pandemic, his administration has aggressively gutted a range of regulations aimed at protecting the public against toxic pollution, global warming, and destruction of public lands.
In fact, while EPA claims it can’t possibly enforce environmental rules during the coronavirus crisis, it found time this week to destroy vehicle fuel economy regulations issued during the Obama administration to fight pollution and climate change. The new Trump fuel rules are so weak, even many in the automobile industry objected. The EPA’s own analysis showed that the Trump version of the rule would cost Americans more money and cause more deaths. But the oil industry wanted the Obama rules gone, and Trump did it.
— Conditioning Urgent Medical Equipment on Praise
In recent weeks, faced with devastating shortages across the country of ventilators, masks, and other critical equipment in various states, Trump publicly took the position that federal assistance to desperate states might be tied to whether particular governors are “nice” to him or “appreciative” of the “incredible job” he’s doing. With Trump publicly attacking Democratic governors including Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Jay Inslee for their supposed ingratitude, various governors scrambled to say good things about Trump or at least not to criticize him. Trump demanding the governors offer fealty and public praise — praise Trump could utilize in campaign commercials this year — in order to get life-saving equipment for their citizens is corruption of the worst order. Like Trump holding up urgent military aid to Ukraine unless its government announced a probe of Biden, it is conditioning official acts on the provision of personal benefits. It is, essentially, asking for a bribe.
As if to emphasize the awfulness of Trump’s position on scare medical supplies, Trump has placed his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose very role as a White House staffer is arguably illegal under a federal anti-nepotism law aimed at combatting corruption, in charge of the supply effort. Kushner made headlines when he stepped up to the podium at a briefing this week and offered the thoughtless comment that the federal store of supplies was “our stockpile” and not “states’ stockpiles that they then use.” The main purpose of the stockpile is to assist states. Echoing Trump, Kushner claimed that some states were “asking for things that they don’t necessarily need at the moment.”
— Prioritizing Re-Election Over Saving Lives
For weeks and months as COVD-19 spread across international borders and into U.S. communities, Trump minimized the risks and insisted the virus was under control. He also was nakedly transparent that his real concern was appearances, as opposed to actual outcomes. For example, on March 9, he stated that his opposition to allowing a cruise ship to dock in California was based on the concern that it would increase the number of confirmed cases in the U.S.: “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Trump also has repeatedly mentioned the stock market, making obvious that his efforts to downplay the crisis have been aimed at juicing the market, most obviously in this February 24 tweet: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
Over and over, Trump has pushed back against science-based imperatives to restrict economic activity and urge people to stay home and protect themselves, except on days when the starkness of the evidence has apparently convinced him that his stance would lead to unspeakable chaos and death.
Riled up by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and reportedly, Kushner, among others, Trump has seemed to believe that Democrats and the media are exaggerating the pandemic’s dangers in order to weaken him politically.
Trump ultimately made it obvious that his reluctance to come to grips with the seriousness and urgency of the pandemic was about a strategy — a completely ill-conceived strategy — to improve his re-election chances. On March 24, Trump announced that he “would love to have the country opened up by Easter,” April 12. When that statement was widely denounced as irresponsible, a cornered Trump complained in a March 25 tweet that media outlets were trying to pressure him “to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.”
At a White House briefing later that day, when CBS reporter Paula Reid asked about the tweet and whether the Easter date was “based on your political interest,” Trump’s anger was clear, and his confession was blatant: “The media would like to see me do poorly in the election,” Trump said. He continued, “I think there are certain people that would like it not to open so quickly. I think there are certain people who would like it to do financially poorly because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls.”
It’s out in the open: The reason Trump has consistently resisted warning the public of the dangers of the pandemic, and resisted urging them to take steps necessary to contain it, is because he has worried that such actions would bring down the markets, increase unemployment, and otherwise create conditions that might weaken his re-election effort.
His position has been, of course, grotesquely short-sighted, because avoiding serious containment measures may have unleashed, and could continue to unleash, an even more severe health crisis — one that ultimately will be even more harmful to the economy. But, worse, Trump’s position has been fundamentally corrupt, because it prioritized his perceived view of how to maximize his re-election odds over the safety and survival of the American people. Hundreds of thousands more Americans may die because Trump has made this disgraceful choice.
Of all the vile and corrupt things Donald Trump has done as president, this is the very worst. At least so far.
UPDATE 04-07-20 12:30 am: Let’s make it eight ways Trump has deepened his corruption during the COVID-19 crisis: “Mr. Trump himself has a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.”