Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Throughout Donald Trump’s Presidency, he has demanded one thing and one thing only from his appointees, from the most prestigious Cabinet positions to the lowliest drones on the White House staff. He calls it “loyalty,” and by that he means not loyalty to the United States Constitution, the principle of representative democracy, the pursuit of justice or even the most basic competence in their jobs. He means “loyalty” to the person of Donald Trump. Appointees in Trump’s administration are expected to serve Trump, not the country. As long as they do what Trump wants and make him look good, he loves them. Once they step off the reservation, he not only fires them but publicly insults them and does whatever he can to destroy their chances at a subsequent career.
Adolf Hitler had a name for this: Gleichschaltung. Like Trump, Hitler was determined to rid his government of its infrastructure of nonpartisan civil servants and replace them with fanatical, dedicated Nazis who would be loyal, not to the German Constitution or the German people as a whole, but personally to him.
Gleichschaltung is one of those indigestible compound words the Germans like to pull together from bits and pieces of their language. It doesn’t have an easy English translation — though I’ve seen it rendered as “coordination” or “rectification” — but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Gleichschaltung) gives the following definition:
[T]he act, process, or policy of achieving rigid and total coordination and uniformity (as in politics, culture, communication) by forcibly repressing or eliminating independence and freedom of thought, action, or expression: forced reduction to a common level: forced standardization or assimilation.
Trump’s latest act of Gleichschaltung occurred on Saturday, June 20, when at the request of Attorney General William Barr he fired the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman. Berman had first learned the administration wanted him out the day before, when Barr’s office had issued a press release stating that Berman would be resigning and Jay Clayton, Trump’s appointee to head the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), would be taking his place as U.S. Attorney. According to one report, the initial motivation was simply that Clayton —a long-time friend of Trump who had supported him in the 2016 campaign — was tired of living and working in Washington, D.C. and wanted a job that would return him to New York.
If Trump and Barr thought Berman would meekly accept his dismissal and go gently into that good night filled with appointees Trump has got rid of for specious reasons and in devious ways, they had another think coming. “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Berman said in a statement. “I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor — and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
Ironically, when Berman was first appointed in early 2018, there were concerns raised that he was too close to Trump. He had worked on Trump’s transition team and had personally been interviewed by Trump for the job — a breach of the usual protocol that the Attorney General interviews U.S. Attorney candidates and the President merely says yea or nay on their appointments. He had also been a law partner of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani (a former Mayor of New York who had, ironically, once himself been the U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York) at the firm of Greenberg, Traurig, LLP, though they had never actually tried a case together.
But if Trump thought he would be getting a complaisant U.S. Attorney who would treat him and his friends with kid gloves, he was sorely disappointed. Under Berman, the Southern District — which, because its jurisdiction includes Manhattan, has authority over virtually all of Trump’s business dealings — investigated and won a guilty plea from Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen. Though Berman didn’t participate in that case, his office not only got Cohen to plead guilty to eight felonies, his plea stated that he committed at least two of the crimes because his then-boss, Donald Trump, ordered him to.
Berman’s office also investigated whether Donald Trump’s main business, the Trump Organization, violated campaign finance laws. And he launched an investigation of his former law partner, Rudolph Giuliani, on charges that he and two associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had broken U.S. laws by attempting to get the government of Ukraine to dig up damaging information on Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden. He also investigated the U.S. operations of Halkbank, a Turkish bank with ties to Turkey’s authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a favorite of Trump’s.
In March 2020 Berman said publicly, “The Southern District of New York has a long history of integrity and pursuing cases, and declining to pursue cases, based only on the facts and the law and the equities, without regard to partisan political concerns.” That, one might think, is what a U.S. attorney is supposed to do. But it’s not what Trump thinks a U.S. attorney is supposed to do. In a remarkable interview with Right-wing talk radio host Larry O’Connor on WMAL-FM November 2, 2017 Trump said:
[T]he saddest thing is, because I’m the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by it. … [A]s a President, you are not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something, and at some point maybe we’re going to all have it out.
Trump made clear to O’Connor just what he would “love” to be able to order the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate, including the funding of Christopher Steele’s dossier on the connections between Trump and Russia (which he falsely claimed was the origin of Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation of Russian influence on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 Presidential campaign); Hillary Clinton’s e-mails; and the leaks from his own administration. It’s clear that Trump believes the Justice Department should be his personal instrument of vengeance against his perceived political enemies —including Barack Obama and Joe Biden, whom he’s recently accused of “crimes” without giving any specifics about what crimes he’s accusing them of.
And in Bill Barr, he now has an attorney general who for the most part will go along, investigate whomever Trump wants investigated and clear whomever Trump wants cleared — including Trump’s first national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, whom Barr recently dismissed Mueller’s case against even though Flynn had twice pleased guilty to lying to the FBI. On June 20, Barr quickly quashed Geoffrey Berman’s brief rebellion, announcing that he had asked Trump to fire Berman and Trump had done so. Berman agreed to leave the office once Barr assured him that instead of Jay Clayton, his interim replacement would be his deputy, Audrey Strauss, whom Berman apparently trusted to maintain the integrity of his investigations against Trump’s associates.
A June 20 report in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/20/nyregion/trump-geoffrey-berman-fired-sdny.html?auth=login-email&login=email), which was so extensive no fewer than seven people were on the byline — Alan Feuer, Katie Benner, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, William K. Rashbaum, Nicole Hong and Benjamin Weiser — noted that, “Throughout the day on Saturday, many current and former employees of the Southern District marveled at just how sour relations with their colleagues in Washington had gotten. Some worried openly that the move threatened the independence of federal prosecutors.”
The Times team quoted David Massey, who’s now a defense attorney but served as a prosecutor with the Southern District of New York for over a decade, as saying, “While there have always been turf battles between the Southern District and the Justice Department in Washington, and occasionally sharp elbows, to take someone out suddenly while they’re investigating the president’s lawyer, it is just unprecedented in modern times.”
Voice of America or Voice of Trump?
Three days before Geoffrey Berman left his job as U.S. Attorney for the Southern Disrict of New York, an aggressive appointee of President Trump carried out a Trump Gleichschaltung at the Voice of America (VOA) and its parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The appointee was Michael Pack, Right-wing filmmaker and protégé of former Trump campaign manager and strategic adviser Steve Bannon.
Pack took office June 4 after a contentious confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate and a party-line 53-38 vote to approve him, and he immediately fired Ray Fang, head of Radio Free Asia, and Alberto Fernandez, head of the Middle East Information Network. He also fired the agency’s entire board of directors and announced he would appoint a new board. Voice of America director Amanda Bennett and her deputy, Sandy Sugawara, both resigned in protest.
The Voice of America was founded in 1942 as part of the U.S. war effort. Its initial mission was to counteract Nazi propaganda being broadcast to neutral countries. After World War II ended and the Cold War began, its mission evolved to counter propaganda from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, and to promote representative democracy and free-market capitalism as superior alternatives to Communism. But VOA has long been caught up in an ongoing battle over how best to promote the United States: should it broadcast programming reflecting the views of the United States government and whoever is currently running it; or should it promote the idea of a free press by serving as an example of one, beholden only to accuracy, fairness, independence and other journalistic standards?
The current law, as summarized on the Voice of America Web site, “prohibits interference by any U.S. government official in the objective, independent reporting of news, thereby safeguarding the ability of our journalists to develop content that reflects the highest professional standards of journalism, free of political interference,”
Right-wingers in the U.S. government have been dumping on the Voice of America at least since 1953, when the notorious Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) sent two of his staff members to Europe to investigate it. One of the investigators was Roy Cohn, who later became a New York attorney and fixer until he was disbarred for ethics violations in 1986 and died of complications from AIDS a year later. One of Roy Cohn’s principal clients was Donald Trump; Cohn masterminded Trump’s rise from small-time real-estate developer in New York’s outer boroughs to major player in Manhattan, and he made such an impression on Trump that quite often, faced with legal troubles, he will yell at his current attorneys and say, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
The Voice of America again attracted scrutiny from Right-wing Congressmembers in 2014. That year, according to a New Republic report quoted in a recent post on Vox.com (https://www.vox.com/2020/6/18/21295549/trump-bannon-pack-global-media-china-wednesday-massacre), “In 2014, Rep. Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation that would turn the agency into an explicit instrument of American ‘public diplomacy,’ with a mandate to promote U.S. foreign policy.”
According to Vox.com reporter Alex Ward, Right-wing attacks on Voice of America ramped up once Trump declared his candidacy for President. A group called “BBG Watch” (“BBG” stood for “Broadcasting Board of Governors,” then the name of the board running the U.S. Agency for Global Media) “highlighted news reports in which the agency compared Trump to Lenin and Mao, criticized his immigration policies, and poked fun at his speeches,” the New Republic reported in 2017.
Once Trump won the election, Ward explained, “Republicans in Congress changed the governance structure of VOA, replacing the bipartisan executive board with a CEO appointed by the president. And two young members of the administration in January 2017 were sent over to the news organization to monitor its operations. ‘The priority is to make coverage fall in line with the president’s world view,’ said Brett Bruen, the director for global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, who had these U.S.-funded media outlets in his portfolio.”
According to Ward, the main complaint Trump, Congressional Republicans and Right-wing media activists have against VOA is it’s been too soft on China. (This is also the stated reason Trump gave for pulling U.S. support from the World Health Organization —first “temporarily,” then permanently — in the middle of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.) “Journalists should report the facts, but VOA has instead amplified Beijing’s propaganda,” read an April 2020 White House article titled “Amid a Pandemic, Voice of America Spends Your Money to Promote Foreign Propaganda.”
“This week, VOA called China’s Wuhan lockdown a successful ‘model’ copied by much of the world — and then tweeted out video of the Communist government’s celebratory light show marking the quarantine’s alleged end,” the article continued. Iromically, VOA did not create that news story — the Associated Press did — but Trump nonetheless cited it in defense of Pack’s purge: “What things they say are disgusting toward our country. And Michael Pack would get in and do a great job.”
Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said, “As feared, Michael Pack has confirmed he is on a political mission to destroy the [agency’s] independence and undermine its historic role. The wholesale firing of the Agency’s network heads, and disbanding of corporate boards to install President Trump’s political allies is an egregious breach of this organization’s history and mission from which it may never recover.”
“[Pack] has taken a rocket-propelled grenade and started shooting it off at various parts of the organizational chart,” said Bruen, and he’s turning into “something much more similar to the North Korean Ministry of Information.” Any perceived campaign to disseminate Trump’s world view “will stink up the place,” he continued, “and that stench is going to spread to anything that carries the label of a U.S. international media agency.”
Though acknowledging that VOA and its sister networks need improvement — especially since countries like Russia and China are making their international media outreach agencies more efficient — Bruen added that VOA and the other U.S. Agencyfor Global Media Networks have for almost 80 years been able “to develop an audience and credible independent voice so people would listen to the information that the U.S. wanted to share.”
But it’s clear that Trump, Bannon and Pack don’t think an independent news source with the U.S. government imprimatur is a good thing. Prominent Trump critic Walter Shaub, who was pushed out of his former position as director of government ethics in yet another example of Trump’s Gleichschaltung, called Pack’s purge “the Breitbartization of U.S. government media” — a reference to Breitbart News, the far-Right Web site Bannon used to run before he joined Trump’s campaign and returned to when Trump fired him in August 2017 — only to be fired at the behest of Breitbart’s financial sponsors in January 2018.
And it’s ironic, to say the least, that the issue on which Trump and his cronies have savaged the Voice of America is its alleged “softness” on China, when former National Security Advisor John Bolton revealed in his book The Room Where It Happened that Trump sucked up to Chinese President Xi Jinping at an international meeting in Osaka, Japan in summer 2019 to get him to buy more soybeans from American farmers to help Trump’s re-election chances in the farm states.
Though Bolton was prevented by White House censors from putting Trump’s exact words in the book on the ground that they were “classified,” Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair got a look at an unredacted copy of the manuscript (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/06/boltons-unredacted-book-shows-trump-trying-to-hide). He reported that Trump told Xi, “Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.”
Trump’s War on Inspectors General
President Trump began his jihad against the federal government’s inspectors general on April 3, when he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/03/trump-fires-intelligence-community-inspector-general-164287). Inspectors general (that’s the correct plural, by the way) are supposed to be independent of the agencies to which they’re assigned. Their purpose is to keep an eye on federal agencies and report wrongdoing by the executive branch to Congress. One of the ways they do that is by receiving complaints from agency whistleblowers, deciding whether the whistleblowers’ allegations are serious and credible, and if they are, transmitting them to Congress.
Atkinson did just that in September 2019, passing along a report by a whistleblower who alleged he’d heard of a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky in which Trump told Zelensky, “I would like you to do me a favor, though,” before Trump would release military aid money Congress had approved for Ukraine’s self-defense against Russian aggression.
It was actually two favors: Trump wanted Ukraine’s justice department to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden, Trump’s likely re-election opponent in November, and his son Hunter over Hunter’s service on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. He also wanted Ukraine to turn over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server — even though the allegation that Ukraine had the server at all was a bit of Right-wing conspiracy-mongering.
Since the whistleblower’s complaint and Atkinson’s forwarding it to Congress led to Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate — both times on virtually party-line votes — Trump evidently wanted payback against Atkinson even though Trump himself had appointed him in November 2017. Trump fired Atkinson on a Friday night and said, “As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as president, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general. That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.” Later he said Atkinson “took a fake report and gave it to Congress.”
Since then Trump has fired at least three other inspectors general (https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/16/politics/list-inspector-general-removed-trump/index.html). On April 10 he removed acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine from his job, which among other things would have given him authority to oversee the spending of the $10 trillion Congress had just approved in emergency relief funding in response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Trump actually demoted Fine rather than firing him, but within a month Fine chose to resign completely rather than accept a lesser assignment.
On May 2, Trump announced he would be firing Christi Grimm, acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, after she signed a report that said America’s doctors and other health care workers can’t get enough SARS-CoV-2 tests and personal protective equipment to do their jobs properly. Trump had denounced the report as “wrong” on April 6 and claimed Grimm was an appointee of former President Barack Obama, though she’d previously served in government under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Then Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, on May 13 at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Linick had been investigating a number of allegations against Pompeo. Among these were that he was using members of both the State Department staff and his personal security detail to run private errands for himself and his wife. He was also accused of hosting private so-called “Madison Dinners” inside the State Department building for prospective donors, fundraisers and supporters for Pompeo’s future political ambitions, including a possible U.S. Senate run from his native Kansas.
But the most serious allegation that Linick was investigating was that Pompeo had abused the power of the Secretary of State to make an “emergency declaration” that allowed the U.S. to sell arms to the government of Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Pompeo’s “emergency declaration,” the sale went through despite opposition from members of Congress, including some Republicans, who were worried that Saudi Arabia would give the arms to the government of Yemen to commit war crimes against civilians in their Saudi-backed war against the Houthi, a rebel group seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.
Trump’s letter firing Linick was strikingly similar to the one he’d written against Atkinson, saying he “no longer” had the “fullest confidence” in him. Reportedly Pompeo asked Trump to fire Linick, and Trump had only one question for Pompeo about Linick: “Who appointed him?” Once Pompeo said Linick had been an Obama appointee, Trump agreed to let him go and replace him with proven Trump loyalist Stephen Akard, an ally of Vice-President Mike Pence.
Trump’s Gleichschaltung Threatens Lives!
But President Trump’s determination to rid the government of people he doesn’t consider sufficiently “loyal” to him personally isn’t just interfering with the ability of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress to keep tabs on Cabinet departments and hold them, their secretaries and the President accountable. In the current pandemic of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, the President’s determination to rid the government of the allegedly “disloyal” directly threatens the lives of Americans and others throughout the world.
On May 10, the long-running CBS-TV news program 60 Minutes reported on the decision of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cancel a $3.7 million five-year grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based group of viral researchers who work with similar organizations in other countries to study both ongoing and potential viral pandemics (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/nih-cancelled-coronavirus-research-grant-60-minutes-2020-05-10/). Among the organizations EcoHealth Alliance and its director, Dr. Peter Daszak, were working with was the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is generally believed to be where SARS-CoV-2 evolved and became a health threat that eventually affected the whole world.
Though back in January Trump was publicly praising China and its authoritarian president, Xi Jiaoping, for having acted early and got a good start protecting its people and the rest of the world against SARS-CoV-2, the White House “line” abruptly changed in mid-March. Then Trump joined a lot of Right-wing media commentators, including Sean Hannity of Fox News, who believed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had either been studying the new virus in their labs and had accidentally released it into the population; or, worse, had deliberately developed SARS-CoV-2 and let it loose around the world as a bioweapon.
Hannity publicly questioned on his Fox News program why the U.S. government was giving money to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (which it wasn’t) and called on the Trump administration to pull the grant. The NIH accordingly canceled the funding just a year after having renewed it and given it one of their highest recommendations. Though the NIH refused to comment to 60 Minutes on why they’d pulled EcoHealth Alliance’s grant, Dr. Daszak was scathing about the potential consequences.
“It matters because number one, our work is used in developing vaccines and drugs to save American lives and the lives of people around the world. So that matters a lot,” Daszak told 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley. “Number two, if we really want to know where viruses are going to emerge and cause the next pandemic, we need to have scientific collaborations like this. They’re our only eyes and ears on the ground in countries that are very difficult, for political reasons, to work in.”
On May 17, a week after breaking the story about the NIH defunding Dr. Peter Daszak’s international viral research program, 60 Minutes presented an even more devastating story about the Trump administration firing a scientist because he refused to toe the administration’s line on SARS-CoV-2. This time the victim was Dr. Rick Bright, who until April 2020 was the head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA). Asked by interviewer Norah O’Donnell, who also anchors the CBS Evening News, what BARDA does, Dr. Bright said, “We focus on chemical threats, biological threats such as anthrax, nuclear threats, radiological threats, pandemic influenza, and emerging infectious diseases.”
Having studied virology his entire life — he has a Ph.D. in virology — Dr. Bright recognized early in January 2020 that SARS-CoV-2 had the potential to cause a pandemic. It was, he said, “[a]n unknown virus infecting people, causing significant mortality, and spreading. … It was just a matter of time before that virus then jumped and left China, and appeared in other countries.” He thought his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shared his sense of urgency — but was astonished that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees NIH, did not.
Dr. Bright recalled a January 23 meeting chaired by Secretary Alex Azar, the head of HHS, at which “I was the only person in the room … that said, ‘We’re going to need vaccines and diagnostics and drugs. It’s going to take a while, but we need to get started.’” Instead, Secretary Azar seemed to be intent on minimizing the potential for a SARS-CoV-2 pandemic — and so did President Trump, who spoke in Wisconsin January 30, at a time when there were only five COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and ridiculed the whole idea that it could be a serious threat.
Ironically, Dr. Bright said, just five months before the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak a working group from BARDA and other federal public health agencies had conducted a study called “Crimson Contagion” about what might happen if a pandemic occurred. “There were lessons about shortages of critical supplies such as personal protective equipment; such as masks, N95 masks, gowns, goggles. And there were lessons about the need for funding,” Dr. Bright told O’Donnell. “We had practiced. We’d drilled. We’d been through Ebola. We’d been through Zika. We’d been through H1N1. This was not a new thing for us. We knew exactly what to do.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t get the chance to do it. On January 25, Dr. Bright sent a memo to his superiors warning that the entire U.S. health-care community would face a “severe shortage of masks when the pandemic hit. Dr. Bright said they responded “passively.” Though Dr. Bright had lined up a U.S. company that could have turned out masks immediately, his superiors decided to wait for two months before they ordered them — and they went to a firm in China to buy them. An incredulous O’Donnell asked Dr. Bright if we’ve completely offshored our ability to respond to a pandemic. Dr. Bright said, “We have offshored a lot of our industry for critical supplies, critical health-care supplies, and critical medicines, to save money.”
But the issue that finally cost Dr. Bright his job — and cost Americans the benefits of his expertise in researching viruses and developing vaccines and treatments against them — was hydroxychloroquine. This is a well-known drug documented as effective in treating malaria and lupus, but it’s been touted as a treatment for COVID-19 even though, as the New England Journal of Medicine reported on June 20 (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2012410), there is no “robust evidence supporting its use” for this disease. Other studies have warned of potential side effects, including the risk that it could cause heart attacks. “[T]he limited data available told us that it could be dangerous,” Dr. Bright told O’Donnell. “It could have negative side effects, and it could even lead to death.”
On April 20 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that hydroxychloroquine should be used as a COVID-19 treatment only in a hospital setting, and nearly two months later, on June 15 the FDA withdrew its emergency approval of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Nonetheless, President Trump not only pushed hydroxychloroquine and a related drug, chloroquine, as “potential game-cbangers” in the fight against the pandemic, he went on the drug himself for a week and a half even though he said his SARS-CoV-2 tests were negative and he showed no symptoms.
On April 21 Dr. Bright was fired as head of BARDA and given a demotion to a lesser job in HHS. “I believe my last-ditch effort to protect Americans from that drug was the final straw. That they used and believed was essential to push me out,” he told O’Donnell on 60 Minutes. Secretary Azar claimed that, far from opposing hydroxychloroquine, Dr. Bright had actually signed the letter asking the FDA for emergency authorization to use it. Dr. Bright told O’Donnell that that was technically true, but “I was given a directive. I didn’t have a choice, other than to leave at that time. And I went along and signed that letter, knowing that we had contained access to that drug” by confining the FDA’s approval to hospitalized patients only.
Dr. Bright filed an extensively documented whistleblower complaint over his demotion that ran over 300 pages. His public statements and the whistleblower complaint prompted an all too typical and predictable spew of insults from President Trump at a May 13 press conference: “Honestly, it seems to me — I watched this guy for a little while this morning. To me he’s nothing more than a really disgruntled, unhappy person.”
“I am not disgruntled,” Dr. Bright told O’Donnell. “I am frustrated at the lack of leadership. I am frustrated at the lack of urgency to get a head start on developing life-saving tools for Americans. I am frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists. Those things frustrate me.” (View the full interview with Dr. Rick Bright at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rick-bright-whistleblower-trump-administration-coronavirus-pandemic-response/.)
Gleichschaltung Throughout Trump’s Presidency
Throughout his Presidency — indeed, throughout his entire life — Donald Trump has shown an utter intolerance for other people’s points of view and an insistence on “total coordination and uniformity” within his organization. He made that clear during the first week he was in office, when he signed a succession of sweeping, far-reaching “executive orders” — directives to the entire federal government which push the limits of the Constitutional powers of the Presidency — which made him look less like a constitutionally elected leader than a South American general who had just taken power in a coup d’état.
He made that clear again when he met then-FBI director James Comey for dinner on January 27, 2017 — just one week into his Presidency — and, according to Comey’s later testimony before Congress (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/james-comeys-opening-statement-on-trump-annotated/529521/), Trump twice asked him to declare his “loyalty” — not to the Constitution or the fair enforcement of federal law, but to Donald Trump personally. Comey described the interactions this way in his opening statement to his Congressional testimony:
[The President] said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.
At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work.
Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.
It obviously wasn’t what Trump expected — or wanted — because he fired Comey three months later and has continued a steady stream of denunciations of both him and his second-in-command, Andrew McCabe. In these pages, I noted that during World War II the American servicemembers who fought had sworn an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. The German, Italian and Japanese soldiers they fought against had sworn an oath not to a constitution or to the nation as a whole, but to a single person: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or Emperor Hirohito, respectively. Indeed, Nazi Germany defined “the will of the Führer” as its ultimate legal authority.
Trump’s firing of Comey, and the conversation between them that led up to it, indicated that Trump had no desire to be a constitutionally elected leader with limited powers. He wanted to be a dictator, a Führer, and he wanted the people on his staff and throughout the federal government to swear the Führer oath to him. And during the three years of his Presidency, he has consistently and relentlessly purged anyone from the government who refused to take the oath of “loyalty” to the person of Donald Trump.
Whatever Gleichschaltung meant in theory, in practice it meant the systematic purge of independent-minded people from any positions of authority in the government of Germany so Hitler could replace them with dedicated, fanatical Nazis. Indeed, Hitler took it so far that even his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diaries about his futile arguments with Hitler over whether the principal qualification for jobs in the Nazi government should be a “low party number” — i.e., someone who’d joined the Nazis early, well before they took power — or actual ability to do the jobs.
Trump couldn’t care less about the actual ability of his appointees to do the jobs to which he’s appointed them. Nor does he care about their honesty. Despite all the promises to “drain the swamp” of corrupt officials only in government service for their personal gain, he’s appointed plenty of people like that to his Cabinet and other high offices. (Indeed, since he seems to regard the Presidency as largely a source of income for himself, he doesn’t seem to mind if his appointees cut themselves in on a bit of the graft, too.) All that matters is their personal loyalty to Donald Trump. Trump demands only two things from his appointees: “make me look good” and “make me richer.”
The two men Comey mentioned in his Congressional testimony as having said “great things about me” to Trump — former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions — are both now on Trump’s scrap heap. Indeed, Trump fired Sessions right after the 2018 midterm election, in which he kept Republican control of the U.S. Senate but lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats, and ultimately replaced him with William Barr, who has essentially taken the Führer oath and turned the Department of Justice into Trump’s legal handmaiden.
On the actual issues, Jeff Sessions was as Right-wing as Right-wing could be. He eagerly contributed to Trump’s jihad against immigrants (and also contributed his nativist staff member, Stephen Miller, to Trump’s White House staff). He denounced state laws allowing marijuana use and pledged to use the federal government to crack down on them. He joined in the Republicans’ assault on the ability of people to vote — especially young people, poor people, people of color and others not likely to vote Republican.
But he was also enough of an institutionalist to resist the pressure from Donald Trump to turn the Justice Department into Trump’s personal fiefdom. Like Comey, Sessions believed it was “important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House.” When he found that the FBI was already investigating allegations that the government of Russia, particularly its intelligence services, had intervened in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, Sessions recused himself from supervising the investigation on the ground that as a key member of Trump’s campaign (and the first U.S. Senator to endorse him), he had an inherent conflict of interest. Trump never forgave him, and constantly ragged on Sessions in tweets, speeches and interviews until he finally pushed Sessions out the door after nearly two years.
Trump’s current Attorney General, William Barr, has been everything Trump could have wished for — and did wish for in his WMAL-FM radio interview with Larry O’Connor on November 2, 2017. Under Barr’s leadership, the Justice Department has sought a reduced sentence for former Trump campaign associate Roger Stone, convicted on eight counts including repeatedly lying to Congress and intimidating a witness. One of the prosecutors in the Stone case, Aaron Zelinsky, stepped down from it over the recommendation and testified to the House Judiciary Committee June 25 that he and his fellow prosecutors were pressured to give Stone “a break” — and the pressure came from the White House. (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/23/prosecutor-says-he-was-pressured-to-cut-roger-stone-a-break-because-of-his-ties-to-trump-336075)
Barr also ordered prosecutors to drop the pending case against Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Trump’s national security advisor for the first three weeks of his Presidency. Flynn had twice pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI in 2016 about his lobbying contacts with Russia and Turkey, and it’s highly unusual for the Justice Department to drop a case in which they’ve already won a conviction.
“Mr. Barr’s move was widely seen as extraordinary and a break with the Justice Department’s approach in cases not involving a presidential favorite, fueling accusations of politicization,” New York Times reporter Charlie Savage wrote June 24 (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/us/politics/michael-flynn-appeals-court.html). “In particular, legal experts broadly disputed his notion that the false statements were immaterial, since they bore on the broader counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump campaign officials had coordinated with Russia’s 2016 election interference.
The judge in the case, Emmet T. Sullivan, balked at the dismissal and appointed a so-called “special master” — a retired fellow judge — to argue the case that Flynn’s guilty plea should stand. But on June 23 a sharply divided three-judge panel of the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 decision ordering Sullivan to drop the Flynn prosecution. “The order from the panel — a so-called writ of mandamus — was rare and came as a surprise, taking its place as yet another twist in the extraordinary legal and political drama surrounding the prosecution of Mr. Flynn,” Times reporter Savage wrote.
In addition to protecting Trump friends and associates like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, William Barr has used his position as Attorney General to go after Trump’s enemies, real or perceived. In late May Trump signed an extraordinary executive order targeting Twitter and social media companies, just two days after Twitter red-flagged two Trump tweets about the alleged potential for fraud in mail voting and Trump accused the platform, which he has used extensively, of trying to censor him.
“Trump’s order aims to limit the companies’ legal immunity for how they moderate content posted by users, a goal that legal experts said exceeds the president’s authority unless he persuades Congress to change the law,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian in a May 28 article (https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-05-28/trump-expected-to-sign-order-on-social-media). “But the move could increase political and financial pressure on Twitter, Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley giants by opening the door to lawsuits and regulatory reviews.”
A month later, on June 25, Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Litman reported on an even more far-reaching assault on social media companies by Attorney General Barr (https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-06-25/willima-barr-vote-by-mail-antitrust-google-department-of-justice). “Picking up on Trump’s bitter but unsubstantiated criticism of Facebook, Twitter and other internet companies, Barr is determined to rattle the DOJ’s antitrust saber at Silicon Valley, and first up is the advertising and search giant Google,” Litman wrote. “According to various news reports, the department is already drafting an antitrust complaint against Google and interviewing lawyers to prosecute the case. That’s after only a year of investigation, which is actually warp speed in terms of bringing an antitrust complaint.”
While progressives and leftists have called on the federal government to investigate the social-media giants both for their economic power and their potential political influence, Barr’s attack on Google and threats to other companies like Facebook and Twitter is, among other things, a threat to force them to highlight more Right-wing voices and be more sympathetic to Trump. In a Fox News interview, Barr quoted Right-wing Congressmember and fanatical Trump supporter Devin Nunes (R-California) as saying the big social-media platforms censored conservatives, and added, “One way that this can be addressed,” Barr went on, “is through the antitrust laws and challenging companies that engage in monopolistic practices.”
Barr also attacked voting by mail in the same Fox interview in which he threatened antitrust prosecution against Google. Echoing Trump, who has attacked voting by mail as inherently fraudulent even though Trump votes by mail himself, Barr said that mail voting “absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud. Those things are delivered into mailboxes. They can be taken out. There’s questions about whether or not it even denies a secret ballot.”
“Barr has shown himself willing to use his vast powers in the service of the president’s political interests,” Litman wrote. “So when he lays out an election-year agenda that plainly coincides with Republican Party interests, we should take him at his word: The DOJ is gearing up for a battle on behalf of Trump. The conduct will be dressed up in law enforcement garb, but the attorney general is being nakedly partisan.”
Trump’s attitude towards law enforcement, his demands of a complaisant Attorney General, his disinterest in other people’s points of view and his Gleichschaltung-like insistence on “loyalty” as the number one quality he expects from his staff — not idealism, integrity or even competence — is yet more evidence that Trump has no interest, and never had any interest, in being a powerful but constitutionally limited President of the United States. Instead, he wants to be a dictator, ruling by decree and with either a rubber-stamp legislature or no legislature at all — just like Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and all the other despots he admires and fawns over at international meetings.
If the voters of the United States of America want their country to remain a democracy — even the limited bourgeois republican democracy it has historically been — they will HAVE to reject President Trump decisively in the November 2020 election and vote for the only candidate who, despite his own flaws, has a chance of defeating and replacing Trump: the likely Democratic Party nominee, former Vice-President Joe Biden.