President Donald Trump treats the prospect of oversight like a disease, one he seems to think is just as dangerous as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping our nation.
Unlike his promises in January and February that this novel coronavirus was “totally under control” (when his own staff warned otherwise), Trump has proved he will attack even the possibility that his or his administration’s actions could be subject to independent review. While it may have taken Trump a while to take this pandemic as seriously as he should have, there has been no hesitation or delay from him when it comes to avoiding oversight.
Just this month, he fired or sidelined multiple inspectors general, those government officials uniquely responsible for rooting out mismanagement and corruption in government. IGs serve a vital role, reporting to both Congress and the agencies they are tasked with monitoring. Trump pushed aside the IG at the Department of Defense who would have been responsible for scrutinizing the $2 trillion approved by Congress to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The president also fired the intelligence community IG who properly handled the anonymous whistleblower complaint regarding Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine into supplying campaign dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden. To be clear, Trump didn’t get rid of these IGs because they did anything wrong. He got rid of them because they were doing their job without favor toward him. In so doing, he shattered norms about the independence of inspectors general, potentially chilling their critical monitoring of executive branch agencies.
Degrading the inspector general system is bad enough, but Trump has done worse to Congress. He has stonewalled House committees countless times since he took office, both before and after his impeachment, in wholesale obstruction of duly authorized subpoenas to supply witnesses or documents in congressional investigations. Trump has even prevented former members of his administration from complying with any congressional subpoena under the radical theory that some of them have “absolute testimonial immunity” from congressional process.
That’s what the president instructed his former White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn, to assert against a subpoena from Congress calling him to testify as part of impeachment proceedings. Recently, by a 2-1 vote, a three-judge federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., sided with Trump, ruling that Congress didn’t even have the right to ask a court to enforce its subpoena. Thankfully, however, that ruling was vacated by the full panel of the D.C. Circuit. Now all 11 judges on that court are scheduled to rehear the case on April 28 and how they ultimately rule could significantly affect Congress’ ability to hold the executive branch accountable.
The ruling could also have monumental consequences for helping our nation endure and recover from COVID-19.
Not since 1918 have we been confronted with such a challenge to our health, our economy and even our democratic way of life. In partial response to this crisis, the $2 trillion — about 10 percent of U.S. GDP — that Congress allocated to prop up the economy (with more money likely on the way) includes some payments to individuals, as well as massive cash flows to businesses. If this towering amount of public money wasn’t enough to make anyone demand robust congressional oversight of how and where it gets spent — and it absolutely should — there also remain questions about Trump’s failure to protect the public from the menace of this new virus far earlier, and how many have died needlessly as a result.
Let’s be crystal clear: Oversight is not a “witch hunt” and it isn’t a “hoax.” Exactly the opposite, congressional oversight is as old as the Republic and is essential to our nation’s future. Oversight is what keeps your tax dollars from being wasted or corruptly diverted in a national war effort, or flushed past $14,000 toilet seats and plunged with $436 hammers. Oversight forces mendacious tobacco company executives to stand in front of the cameras and take an oath to tell the truth, and be held accountable when they lie brazenly to the American people in promising their products aren’t addictive. Oversight pushes into the full light of day a president’s crimes against the Constitution, written for all time on the pages of history for every succeeding generation to see. Simply put, Congress cannot be Congress if it cannot vigorously conduct oversight of the executive branch and the tax dollars it spends.
Whether Congress chooses to subpoena officials in this difficult but critical time in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, or whether it waits until after the virus is under better control, lawmakers will need access to information to do their job. Ideally, as examples such as the Truman Committee during World War II show us, such oversight would have the full support of leaders of both parties in a search for the unvarnished truth. Trump and his defenders, however, have thus far proved entirely uninterested in such a search.
Whether from inspectors general or Congress, oversight is not something an American president should fear if there is no reason for substantial rebuke. It is a fundamental part of our democracy, in war and peace, in sickness and health. That President Trump appears to fear independent scrutiny nearly as much as the threat of our current public health crisis speaks volumes.
Elizabeth Wydra is president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a public interest law firm and think tank dedicated to promoting the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text, history and values. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethWydra.