As the coronavirus has engulfed his presidency, Donald Trump has grown insular and paranoid, retreating to the comfort zones he’s enjoyed at other scandal points in office and lashing out against perceived foes with a mix of defiance and impetuousness.
In recent days, Trump has ousted and denigrated inspectors general at various government agencies tasked with holding his administration accountable as it oversees a massive economic and public health response to the pandemic. It’s a move that has alarmed congressional critics who see the president as increasingly unmoored from a system of checks and balances, and perhaps emboldened by his own impeachment, for which he was acquitted.
“President Trump has engaged in a series of actions designed to prevent or neuter any kind of oversight over his actions and misconduct,” said House Intel Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led the impeachment inquiry, in a statement to The Daily Beast. “I don’t think anyone should be surprised, because he’s telegraphed that he will reject any kind of accountability. But the fact that he would do this in the middle of a national crisis, when the health and safety of the American people are at stake and trillions of dollars are being allocated to help, is a new and dangerous low.”
At the same time, Trump has increasingly leaned on familiar, reassuring voices to help him navigate the coronavirus crisis—a list that includes a smattering of Fox News celebs, his pugnacious personal lawyer, close family members, and the staunchest of sycophants inside his administration.
While the president has sought to maintain a facade of command in the midst of a rising death toll and cratering economy, he has also remained consumed by grievance and score-settling. During a recent White House meeting to discuss, among other issues, the availability of ventilators, Trump went on an unprompted tangent about all the “miserable people” in the press who “say I want to kill millions of [Americans],” according to a U.S. official familiar with his gripe. According to two sources who’ve heard him say it, Trump has repeatedly said in the past couple weeks how great it’ll be to “see the look on their faces” if it turns out the anti-malaria drug he’s been hyping as a coronavirus therapy ends up saving “many lives.” The president has been widely criticized for aggressively pushing hydroxychloroquine before a medical consensus has emerged on its efficacy in safely treating coronavirus patients.
The result of Trump’s grudges and stubbornness has been a president even more detached from and distrustful of the government and institutions that surround him, whether it be congressional Democrats, members of the political press, medical professionals, or the inspectors general there to make sure the federal response doesn’t go off the rails.
“He’s doing what all Republican administrations do,” said Matt Schlapp, a longtime conservative lobbyist and Trump surrogate. “Realize that all of you and all the careerists are trying to kill [him]!”
Many presidents narrow their circle of advisers in moments of extraordinary crisis. John F. Kennedy famously turned to his brother, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bill Clinton had his svengali in Dick Morris, the high-profile and controversial adviser he sought counsel from after his midterm losses and during impeachment, as well. (Morris would go on to advise Team Trump.)
Trump, in that regard, is no different. As the coronavirus has spread, he’s found solace in being his own primary spokesman for the response. He’s given Fox News host Laura Ingraham time to pitch him on the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine. He’s kept in touch with Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney and a central figure in the impeachment saga, on the phone to discuss the same matter. And he’s allowed his son-in-law and White House aide Jared Kushner to set up a coronavirus task force parallel to the one his vice president is running.
But chief among the comforting voices to whom Trump has rushed to elevate and embrace has been Peter Navarro, his White House trade adviser and resident China hawk who has emerged as a force for unbridled Trumpism in the administration’s ongoing response to the mounting body count. Navarro has played backup to Trump in the intra-administration debate raging around the merits of an anti-malaria drug that is so far unproven at treating the coronavirus. Navarro’s support for the president’s stance on the drug culminated in a bitter confrontation in the White House Situation Room over the weekend, when the trade adviser started yelling at Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for going against Trump’s positions, as Axios first reported.
The role of rabid Trump loyalist willing to make enemies within the president’s inner sanctum is one that Navarro has gladly assumed since 2017. Stephen Moore, a conservative economist at the Heritage Foundation, said in an interview Monday that there have been multiple instances in which he and others would be sitting in the Oval Office when Trump, being egged on by more traditional conservative voices urging him to reconsider or reverse his nationalist policies, would lean over his phone on the Resolute Desk, buzz his personal secretary, and exclaim: “Get Peter Navarro in here!”
“Navarro would then come in and make the case for a more protectionist policy,” Moore said. “Because Peter thinks a lot like Trump does.”
That dynamic has continued well into the pandemic, as Navarro has operated under the protection of the president even as he’s continued to pick policy fights not just with Fauci but with fellow high-ranking officials such as Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. And according to a senior administration official, in addition to encouraging Navarro to take on a bigger role in working with the coronavirus task force, the president has instructed aides to make sure that Navarro (or, “my Peter,” as Trump has often called him) gets booked on a greater number of TV and cable-news hits to represent the White House during this crisis.
Outside the Oval Office, there is far more willingness among administration officials to turn to unfamiliar voices.
President Barack Obama’s former administrator at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Andy Slavitt, is reportedly in touch with Kushner on the coronavirus. And Ron Klain, who served as Obama’s point man on Ebola in 2014 and is a top adviser to Trump’s likely general election opponent—former Vice President Joe Biden—told The Daily Beast that he has “had private conversations with various officials involved in the response.” But those officials did not include Kushner, Klain stressed. And they did not include the president either. “No,” he said, “I’m talking to people doing the work.”
That type of counsel has helped inform part of the administration’s approach to the pandemic. But much of the direction has been dictated by the president at the top. And increasingly, one of Trump’s main priorities has been to eliminate the watchdogs who could call foul on his administration. Early this month, the president sacked Michael Atkinson, inspector general of the intelligence community, who had handled the anonymous whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal in the Senate trial.
On Monday, the president devoted part of his daily coronavirus press briefing to attacking Christi Grimm, an inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging partisan bias following a report underscoring the “severe shortages of testing supplies” in certain hospitals. “Give me the name of the inspector general,” Trump demanded of the White House press corps at one point. “Could politics be entered into that?” And on Tuesday, news broke that the president had replaced Glenn Fine, an acting inspector general for the Pentagon who’d been tapped to oversee $2 trillion in federal coronavirus relief.
The moves reflected the president’s broader opinion of what a good inspector general working in the Trump era should be: not an avatar of oversight but a spear for Trump and his agenda. Last month, the president had privately quipped how much better things would be if inspectors general and government watchdogs had the integrity of people such as Tom Fitton, according to an administration official present for the comment.
Fitton, who leads the right-wing watchdog organization Judicial Watch, is a regular on some of Trump’s favorite Fox News programs and frequently rages against the so-called Trump-antagonizing “Deep State.” Fitton is also a frequent presence on Trump’s personal Twitter page.
For Trump, this is a time of retribution, of casting aside the institutional hurdles and players that he believes have been trying to damage his presidency since its inception. For Democrats, it’s another ominous development in a presidential response to a global pandemic that has been filled with ominous developments.
“A cop on the beat, the intelligence community inspector general, stopped Trump’s Ukrainian shakedown scheme,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA). “Instead of learning the lesson to stop being corrupt, Trump is firing inspectors general to reduce cops on the beat. Fortunately, we are not helpless. The House must conduct aggressive oversight to check Trump’s corruption.”