Even in the midst of a global pandemic and economic collapse, President Donald Trump is charging ahead on his mission to purge his administration of watchdogs who are tasked with exposing waste, fraud, and abuse. And as he goes about this mission, he’s leaning on a 29-year-old loyalist once exiled from the Trump administration for a reported gambling problem, as well as a cadre of conservative firebrands who have fed his paranoia that government careerists are trying to destroy him.
Early this month, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, inspector general of the intelligence community, who had been asked to handle the anonymous whistleblower complaint last year that triggered the president’s impeachment at the hands of House Democrats. On Monday, the president used his daily coronavirus press briefing at the White House to take swipes at Christi Grimm, a Department of Health and Human Services inspector general, after being asked about her report documenting the “severe shortages of testing supplies” in certain U.S. hospitals during the coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, the news broke that Trump had replaced Glenn Fine, an acting Pentagon inspector general who had been assigned to oversee $2 trillion in coronavirus relief money.
Those actions are just the beginning of Trump’s plans to remake much of the federal government by appointing Trump-supportive partisans, including to inspector-general posts, four administration sources say. And they reflect the degree to which the president’s obsession with purging and denigrating his perceived enemies within the government continues to animate him, even as the White House struggles to respond to the coronavirus outbreaks and the increasing number of deaths throughout the country.
For the task, Trump has increasingly leaned on the White House Presidential Personnel Office (PPO), headed by recently rehired Trump aide John McEntee. In the past two months, Trump and McEntee have discussed the topic of replacing inspectors general—a number of whose nominations require approval by the Senate—along with various other positions in the federal government. The president has made clear that he is adamant about quickly filling those posts (there are more than 70 such watchdogs across the government) with those more submissive to him and ousting appointees he often baselessly lambasts as “corrupt,” according to a senior administration official.
McEntee, Trump’s former presidential body man and a 2016 campaign veteran, was fired two years ago from his White House job by then-Chief of Staff John Kelly, reportedly for an excessive online-gambling habit and related tax issues that had hindered him from getting a proper security clearance.
Still, he was given a soft landing at the 2020 Trump campaign and remained beloved by the president, the Trump family, and senior Trump staffers who considered him part of “the originals,” a term affectionately used to describe longtime confidants and advisers. Late last year, it was reported that McEntee would head back to the White House for his new gig, with Kelly long out of the picture. And he was given a broad mandate by Trump when he arrived, staffing up with those he trusted, including a college senior as one of his chief deputies.
Even within that tight clique of “originals,” the president views McEntee as one of his most trusted lieutenants and has specifically tasked him with being a point man on staff purges for, at a minimum, the rest of Trump’s first term in office. And McEntee takes the perceived disloyalty to the president just as personally, or perhaps more so, than the president himself. Unlike Trump, who can be chummy with Democrats and reporters even as he decries them publicly, McEntee doesn’t have an off switch, those who know him say.
“Bashing the press is fashionable in Trumpworld, but a lot of people are faking it. Not Johnny. He genuinely believes your only agenda is taking down Trump,” said a former White House official.
The work being carried out by the president, McEntee, and other top officials has started sending shockwaves through various federal agencies and departments. Two officials with knowledge of the situation tell The Daily Beast that they view the White House’s efforts to target inspectors general as part of an ongoing campaign to root out individuals perceived to be disloyal to Trump. “IGs aren’t supposed to be employees of the Trump Organization,” another U.S. official said. “But it’s clear that the president thinks they should be… It’s grotesque.”
As part of a broader effort to gather intelligence on allegedly disloyal administration officials, McEntee’s office has relied on outside advice and research from conservative operatives and Trump allies about which inspectors general and senior officials to look into, the sources added. McEntee’s office has also reached out to the offices of GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill for guidance, one of those officials said.
Purging inspectors general who show insufficient subservience to Trump has been a longtime obsession of several key Trump allies. Groundswell, a right-wing activist network headed by activist Ginni Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, has pushed memos to the president with suggestions for how he can remake the federal government by staffing it to the hilt with Trump fanboys. Tony Shaffer, a retired lieutenant colonel and member of the Trump 2020 media advisory board, posted to Twitter on Thursday: “Fine & Atkinson are the protectors of the Deep State… they all need to be replaced.”
And Tom Fitton, who helms the right-wing watchdog group Judicial Watch, helped spearhead a lawsuit in December demanding emails and texts from Atkinson. Fitton is a regular guest on some of the Fox News shows that Trump frequently watches and from which he takes cues. Asked if he’d been in touch with PPO or anyone else in the White House, Fitton wouldn’t confirm or deny “any conversations with the White House that may or may not have happened” but said in a brief interview Thursday that it is his opinion that “President Trump should fire all the IGs he didn’t appoint.” Fitton added that it’s his read that the president wants “fresh blood” and deserves to have an administration staffed with inspectors general who are “more in sync with him and who are as aggressive as he is.”
But while Trump is being egged on to find “fresh blood,” others in his party have grown nervous about the gutting of one of the few potential oversight mechanisms still in existence. The ousting of Atkinson in particular has raised questions about the president’s thinking and motivations during one of the worst global pandemics in history.
Over the past several days, the president has drawn scrutiny from Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who are demanding answers from the White House about why Atkinson was fired. And the matter might not end there. A Democratic aide familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that several House committees are in the process of strategizing on oversight efforts related to Trump’s efforts to purge the administration’s top watchdogs.