COVID-19 & the Dismantling of Oversight: How the Trump Administration is Exploiting the Pandemic and Public Distraction to Purge Whistleblowers
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to transform every aspect of our society, from our daily lives to the economy, Government Accountability Project continues to confront the unparalleled challenges of the current moment. While the American public is understandably distracted, the current administration is exploiting the coronavirus crisis to accelerate its war on whistleblowers, the truth, and democratic institutions and norms.
At the time of writing, 80,653 Americans have already died from the disease, and total US cases are approaching 1.4 million. According to current projections, over 130,000 Americans are estimated to die from disease by the end of August. As reported extensively in the press, American hospitals are wracked with increasing caseloads and dwindling supplies of critical personal protective equipment (PPE).
In the last few weeks, multiple inspectors general (IGs) have been abruptly removed from their posts. A month ago, President Donald Trump fired the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. Atkinson had informed Congress of the whistleblower complaint that precipitated the President’s impeachment. Only three days later, Trump relieved Glenn Fine, the peer-elected leader of the panel of IGs responsible for overseeing allocation and implementation of the $2 trillion pandemic stimulus law, from his duties as Acting Department of Defense (DOD) IG. Trump named another official, Sean O’Donnell, to serve concurrently as the Acting DOD IG, in addition to his current duties as the Acting Environmental Protection Agency IG.
The firing of multiple inspectors general across the government is an outright attack on the laws and norms put in place to hold our government accountable and root out corruption and abuses. At this time, IGs have never been more important to sustaining and maintaining the integrity of our government.
In this administration, speaking the truth and upholding accountability is a fire–able offense, which makes it harder for the public to know the truth about both public health dangers and how our government is working. Capt. Brett Crozier was removed from his post by the then–acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly after he blew the whistle on the threat to sailors’ lives due to the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. In late April, Dr. Rick Bright, the top official responsible for researching a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, was dismissed from his post after pushing for significant vetting of controversial treatments President Donald Trump has publicly supported. Until his removal, Dr. Bright was the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Bright was pushed into a position with less authority at the National Institutes of Health. These individuals told inconvenient truths and fought corruption, or at least ineptitude, but under this administration, that type of behavior that results in punishment.
The independence of prosecutors has also been challenged under the Trump administration. On May 8, Attorney William Barr dropped charges against former Trump administration National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn. Previously, Flynn had plead guilty twice to charges of lying to the FBI.
The actions by the administration are unprecedented, troubling, and dangerous. This is an administration that believes, and acts, as if it is above the law and accountability. That’s why Government Accountability Project is working with allies and Congress to take aggressive action against executive overreach and seek accountability for abuse and corruption related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, Government Accountability Project, the co-founder of the Whistleblowing International Network, joined 100+ international organizations in signing a letter calling for global transparency and accountability in COVID-19 response legislation.
Congress must take immediate action to protect our vital institutions and norms. On April 21, we sent a letter along with dozens of organizations urging Congress to provide accountability and transparency measures for stimulus spending. We are also working to ensure essential workers can report threats to public health and safety free from retaliation.
Government Accountability Project and other advocates are striving to make sure that whistleblowers on the frontlines keeping us safe and functioning every day can fight back against attempts to silence them. With so many lives at stake, the truth matters, and whistleblowers should be safe in telling those truths during COVID-19 and beyond.