The headlines coming out of President Donald Trump’s media availability on Monday were all about his stunning announcement that he’s taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug with potentially dangerous side effects like hallucinations and heart failure, in an apparent attempt to ward off coronavirus.
But somewhat lost in the shuffle was another jarring development: His rationale for firing State Department Inspector General Steve Linick — apparently at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s request, even as Linick was actively investigating Pompeo — left everything to be desired. It also exposed Trump’s contempt for the notion that oversight can be fairly conducted by any official not loyal to him.
Asked what specifically Linick was doing that he thought warranted his dismissal, the president said, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know anything other than the State Department, and Mike in particular, I guess they were not happy with the job he’s doing or something.”
.@jeffmason1: You said you don't know the IG you just fired. What was he doing that was treating you unfairly?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 18, 2020
TRUMP: "I don't know. I don't anything about him. I don't know." pic.twitter.com/0YNmZNUWGX
Trump was asked a string of other questions about Linick’s firing, which was announced on Friday night and came as he was investigating an emergency declaration that allowed the Trump administration to circumvent Congress and sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. Linick was also reportedly investigating “allegations that Pompeo directed a political appointee to run errands for him and his wife, including retrieving his dry cleaning, walking his dog and making dinner reservations,” as the Washington Post put it. (Pompeo says he wasn’t aware of the investigation when he asked Trump to fire Linick.)
While Trump has a right to fire inspectors general, it’s not lawful for him to do so as an act of political retaliation. The circumstances surrounding Linick’s dismissal certainly raised questions about whether that’s what happened here.
But if there were legitimate reasons for firing Linick, who was appointed by President Obama, that go beyond Trump’s distaste for all things having to do with Obama, he certainly wasn’t able to cite them on Monday.
“I don’t know him at all. I never even heard of him. I was asked to [fire Linick] by the State Department, by Mike,” Trump said at one point, adding later, absurdly, that Democrats “would’ve criticized me too” if he hadn’t fired him.
“These are Obama appointees,” Trump said of Linick and other inspectors general he’s recently fired on Friday nights, as if that in itself is a reason to get rid of them.
REPORTER: Pompeo was reportedly under investigation by the IG you fired. Are you concerned he requested the firing to avoid an investigation?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 18, 2020
TRUMP: I don't know anything about it ... I don't think it sounds, like, that important pic.twitter.com/crwCNneaKp
Trump dodged a question about whether he thinks Pompeo asking for Linick’s firing amid an active investigation into himself creates a conflict of interest, saying, “I don’t think it sounds, like, that important.” Asked if he had concerns that Pompeo may have requested the firing to avoid investigations, Trump indicated he doesn’t understand why it’s wrong for bosses to ask their employees to do personal favors for them in the first place.
“He’s a high-quality person. Mike. He’s a very brilliant guy,” Trump said. “And now, I have you telling me about a dog walking, washing dishes. And you know what? I would rather have them on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes, because maybe his wife isn’t there or their kids aren’t. What are you telling me? It’s terrible. It is so stupid. You know how stupid that sounds to the world? Unbelievable.”
Listen to this. Trump has absolutely no clue why it's wrong for Mike Pompeo to ask employees to do personal favors for his family. In fact he thinks it's the sort of thing he should be doing. pic.twitter.com/Rkdq7PiSiq— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 18, 2020
In short, Trump didn’t even try to hide that he doesn’t think there should be any oversight of his administration conducted by someone who isn’t personally loyal to him, nor does he think it’s wrong for government officials to stymie investigations into their own conduct by firing the investigators.
Acting on this principle by purging inspectors general like Linick would have been a major scandal in any previous era. But three years after he fired FBI Director James Comey amid an active investigation of his campaign, Trump has so thoroughly destroyed this norm that his public admission about purging an inspector general for no good reason (and possibly some very bad ones) barely registered as a blip on the news radar.