April 7, 2020

First a correction to last night’s post. I wrote that Judge Daniel Kelly was up for reelection in Wisconsin. In fact, he was never elected; he was appointed by Republican Governor Scott Walker. Today’s election will determine if he joins the Wisconsin supreme court as an elected member.

Aside from the Wisconsin election, today’s political machinations felt like they were about psychology, about narcissistic traits and when and how they dominate others… and when they don’t work.

Today the acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly resigned. He did so after he appeared Monday at the USS Theodore Roosevelt, now in Guam where the sailors are being quarantined because of the Covid-19 outbreak on their ship. Modly is a political appointee who, after seven years as helicopter pilot in the Navy, left the service and became a businessman. He was appointed as acting Secretary of the Navy in November 2019 after Trump removed the previous Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer. Spencer had incurred Trump’s wrath by opposing the president’s interference in the military justice proceedings against Eddie Gallagher, convicted of posing for a photograph with the corpse of a dead teenaged ISIS fighter.

Modly removed Captain Brett Crozier from the command of the Roosevelt after a memo in which Crozier took his superiors to task for leaving the sailors of his ship to the mercy of the coronavirus spreading through it leaked to the press. The removal of the captain before an investigation was unusual, and Modly apparently told a colleague “Breaking news: Trump wants him fired.” The removal caused an uproar, especially after the videos circulated of the sailors cheering Crozier as he left the ship.

So Modly traveled 8000 miles to Guam to speak to the sailors of the Roosevelt, but he was clearly speaking to an audience of one. In the ten-minute, profanity-laced harangue, Modly defended his action in firing Crozier, then called this high-ranking naval officer either “too naïve or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this.” (Prompting a sailor on the tape to exclaim: “What the [expletive]!”) He went on to accuse Crozier of “betrayal” for his memo, and warned the sailors that they should never go to the media because it had an agenda and wanted to embarrass the Navy. He emphasized that Crozier had compromised the mission of the ship by calling attention to the plight of the sailors, and that could not be tolerated. He complained at how badly he and his family had been treated over his treatment of Crozier, “But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me,” he said. He attacked Joe Biden, and he promised the sailors that he would answer the questions they had sent him later, “whether you hate me or not.”

It was an extraordinary performance that showed just how ill equipped Modly was for the high office he occupied. Modly’s behavior echoed that of Trump and of those who share his personality, although his performance sounded juvenile and pathetic compared to that of Trump. Like him or hate him, Trump dominates an audience, and Modly did not, sounding defensive rather than dominant.

Key to both Modly’s speech and Trump’s behavior is the attitude of “you’re not the boss of me!” and the belief that they can behave without restraint. In Modly’s case, that attitude did not work. After first standing by his speech, he issued an apology. But it wasn’t enough to save him.

He will be replaced by Under Secretary of the Army, James McPherson.

While Modly’s attempt to show his dominance backfired, Trump himself is also trying to demonstrate that no one can boss him around. Last Friday, he fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, the man who had told Congress that the acting Director of National Intelligence was withholding the whistleblower complaint over Trump’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky last July.

Today, Trump removed the Pentagon official tapped to head the group monitoring the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, known as the CARES Act. Glenn Fine, a career official who was serving as the acting Pentagon inspector general, had been selected by a number of his fellow inspectors to head the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee established to oversee CARES. Trump removed him from his position as the Pentagon inspector general, thus making him ineligible to oversee the CARES Act.

Tonight, Susan Crabtree of RealClearPolitics tweeted that Trump was planning to fire 7 Inspectors General in one fell swoop, planning to put his own people into those positions. Such a sweeping purge remains to be seen, but Trump is clearly culling all but his own people, demonstrating that he can behave as he wishes. Democrats are pushing back of course, but so did Paul Rosenzweig, a political appointee in George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security. Rosenzweig called Trump’s removal of Fine “an affront to independence and oversight.” “Frankly,” he said, “if the House of Representatives does not condition all further covid aid on the restriction of the president’s removal authority, they will have made a mistake.”

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning organization, warned, “This is a giant step towards a corrupt aristocracy. And not a word from his enablers in Congress….”

Not a word from his enablers, but Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, announced today that the committee will investigate Trump’s firing of Atkinson. His letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell on the subject asked Grenell to confirm in writing whether he had ever prohibited Atkinson from doing his job, “initiating, carrying out, or completing any investigation, inspection, audit, or review.”

Schiff’s letter does more than that, though. It accuses Grenell of politicizing his office and thus undermining critical intelligence functions. It notes that “Congress has neither authorized organizational changes at ODNI, nor appropriated funds for that purpose” and that the committee “is concerned… by the removal or departure of every Senate-confirmed official at ODNI.” The letter warns Grenell against purging career officials in favor of Trump cronies and demands that he provide by April 16 “a written certification from the Acting General Counsel of ODNI that officials, yourself included, will not permit retaliation or reprisals against anyone who has made, or in the future makes, protected disclosures of misconduct to Congress or Inspectors General.”

If Grenell refuses to stipulate that he will not permit retaliation, he is admitting that, so far as he is concerned, Trump can purge the intelligence community of career officials and replace them with his own people. Remember, the intelligence community has uniformly warned that Russia is already interfering in our upcoming election, while Trump, Grenell, and a former staffer for Devin Nunes (R-CA), now working with Grenell, all deny that finding and assert that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, that attacked us in 2016. (There is no evidence of this, and intelligence officers say it is Russian propaganda.)

Schiff also warned that “reports indicate that one or more members of your staff may be inappropriately interfering with the production and briefing of intelligence information on election security to Congress, including information that was briefed to all Members on March 10.” He requested “any and all communications” about that briefing.

So here we are. Modly didn’t get away with declaring he could do as he wished. Will Trump, especially when it involves our national security and the upcoming election?

I wouldn't take a bet. The last time Schiff wrote a letter like this to an acting Director of National Intelligence, Trump got impeached.

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Notes:

8000 miles:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/04/trump-wants-him-fired-inside-ouster-capt-brett-crozier/

https://thehill.com/policy/defense/491236-esper-faces-tough-questions-on-firing-of-navy-captain

transcript: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/06/politics/thomas-modly-transcript/index.html

Modly resigns: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/politics/modly-resign-crozier-esper-trump/index.html

Resignation letter: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/politics/thomas-modly-resignation-letter/index.html

Crabtree:

Rosenzweig: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-removes-inspector-general-who-was-to-oversee-2-trillion-stimulus-spending/2020/04/07/2f0c6cb8-78ea-11ea-9bee-c5bf9d2e3288_story.html

Ornstein:

Schiff letter: https://www.scribd.com/document/455430916/Schiff-letter-to-Grenell#fullscreen&from_embed

Schiff: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/07/trumps-purge-is-about-get-much-worse-schiff-just-sent-up-flare/