May 21, 2020

Two stories caught my attention today.

First, the day after Trump removed the State Department Inspector General, he removed yet another Inspector General, this one from the Department of Transportation. Career public servant Mitch Behm was serving as the Acting Inspector General of the Department of Transportation. He is to be replaced by Howard R. Elliott, who is the Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and who will continue to hold that office while also serving as the DOT IG. The kicker of this arrangement is that in his position as the administrator of PHMSA, Elliott reports to Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation. So, rather than being independent, the Inspector General would actually report to the head of the department he is supposed to be inspecting.

It appears that Inspector General Behm was on the chopping block because he was investigating Secretary Chao’s conflicts of interest. Chao is married to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Reports had surfaced that the Department of Transportation was steering contracts to Kentucky, where McConnell is running for reelection. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Subcommittee on Government Operations, have all protested the firing and demanded documents relating to it.

Second, Trump has announced that the United States is leaving the Open Skies Treaty. This treaty permitted signatories to it to monitor each other’s military activity by plane, enabling them to keep tabs on what each other was up to and thus, theoretically, making war less likely. Trump has argued that Russia is violating the treaty by limiting flights over critical areas, and is using that as a reason to abandon the treaty. But leaving the treaty means the U.S. and its allies will have less information on Russian military activity, including—crucially-- that on the border of Ukraine, enabling Russia to increase its pressure there. Retired four-star general and former Director of the National Security Agency General Michael Hayden tweeted “This is insane. I was the director of the CIA.” Russia expert Tom Nichols replied “The Russians can’t believe it’s all gotten this easy.”

Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, notes that the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act—a law Trump signed-- requires the president to give Congress 120 days’ notice before beginning the process of withdrawal.

That’s it for tonight, folks, because I cannot hold my eyes open. See you on the flip side.

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Notes:

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-openskies/u-s-says-pulling-out-of-open-skies-treaty-citing-russian-violations-idUSKBN22X1TK

Hayden:

Nichols:

House complaint about DOT: https://oversight.house.gov/sites/democrats.oversight.house.gov/files/2020-05-19.CBM%20DeFazio%20GEC%20to%20Chao-DOT%20re%20Removal%20of%20Acting%20DOT%20IG.pdf

DOT IG: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/19/democrats-blast-removal-of-acting-dot-inspector-general-268611