May 27, 2020

Today Trump’s reaction to Twitter fact-checking him was so extreme that #TrumpMeltdown trended on Twitter. This morning, to his audience of more than 80 million, he tweeted: “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices [sic]. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen….” Then he went on to reiterate that mail-in ballots would “be a free for all on cheating, forgery and the theft of Ballots.”

This evening, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump would be signing an executive order pertaining to social media companies, although just what that might look like is unclear. Brian Fung, CNN’s technology reporter, says that the White House did not consult the Federal Communications Commission about the forthcoming executive order, suggesting that the order has not gone through the normal review process.

This means that any executive order he issues—if he issues one—is unlikely to withstand legal scrutiny. Rather than actually affecting the law, he is likely simply trying to pressure Twitter into leaving his own disinformation unchallenged. It is also likely he is eager to change the subject to anything other than our growing numbers of Americans dead of Covid-19. (None of his tweets today acknowledged our dead.)

Finally, he is seeing what can he get away with. Will he be able to bully Twitter’s moderators into leaving his own disinformation unchecked?

The question of what Trump can get away with, how far he can move the goalposts for his own campaign, was in the news tonight over another issue, as well. In the past two months, Trump has cleaned house of five inspectors general. By law, though, he cannot fire them cleanly; he has to give Congress thirty days notice so it can prevent the president from firing an inspector general because of an investigation.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has a reputation as a protector of inspectors general, led a number of other senators to question Trump’s removal of Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson. Atkinson was the one who alerted Congress when the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire withheld from it the whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The senators demanded that Trump provide evidence of “clear, substantial reasons for removal.” When Trump then axed State Department IG Steve Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Pompeo, Grassley followed up with another letter, again demanding an explanation, and noting that the president’s replacements for the fired men must not be partisan hacks.

Yesterday, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone responded with a letter that simply said Trump had the right to fire IGs. It noted other instances when presidents had done so: Reagan when he fired thirteen IGs and President Obama when he fired one. But the comparisons are false. Reagan’s action came before the 2008 law that made IGs nonpolitical, and Obama did, indeed, provide to Congress a convincing justification for why the Americorps IG could no longer do his job.

Trump is, once again, solidifying his power in the Executive Branch, refusing to acknowledge that Congress has any role in his oversight, despite the fact that congressional oversight has been an accepted part of our constitutional system since America’s first president, George Washington, agreed to hand over executive documents to Congress in his first term.

But, so far, Republicans in the Senate have refused to check Trump in any way. Grassley has said the White House’s answer is “insufficient,” and that it had failed to meet the legal requirement for telling Congress why it was dismissing an inspector general. But while Grassley opened a full investigation into President Obama’s dismissal of acting Americorps inspector general Gerald Walpin in 2009, in this case, Grassley appears to be backing off. Rather than launching an investigation, or blocking Trump’s nominees until Trump actually responds to his letters, the 86-year-old senator so far is simply saying he is developing new legislation that will prevent political appointees from serving as inspectors general. Pretty weak sauce.

But there has been one surprise in Congress lately. New Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-FL) appears to be following the lead of former chair Richard Burr (R-NC), trying to retain the committee’s independence from Trump.

The president wants Republicans to bolster his reelection campaign by investigating Hunter Biden and attacking those who revealed Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election, and most of the Senate Republicans have gone along. The head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Ron Johnson (R-WI), is conducting an investigation into Hunter Biden’s role on the board of the Ukraine energy company, Burisma, providing the investigation Trump tried to pressure Zelensky into announcing. And at Trump’s urging, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has announced an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, an investigation that will likely lead to subpoenas for former Obama officials to testify over the summer.

But Rubio is not on board with Trump’s vague “Obamagate” claims, and has warned his colleagues not to amplify current Russian disinformation. “I’m not going to accuse any member who believes that they are exercising oversight to be colluding with a foreign power,” Rubio said. “I will say to you that I think it’s pretty clear that the Russians are constantly pursuing narratives that they believe will drive conflict in our politics and divide us against each other.”

This is of interest because Rubio is young, just 49, and clearly interested in a presidential run after Trump. He is making a gamble that defying the president, rather than bowing to him, will give him a brighter political future.

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Notes:

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/27/trump-executive-order-social-media-twitter-285891

Fung:

Grassley: https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-leads-bipartisan-call-safeguard-inspector-general-independence-following

https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-renews-call-trump-comply-ig-removal-statute#_ftnref2

Cipollone letter: https://www.grassley.senate.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05-26%20White%20House%20Counsel%20to%20CEG%20%28IC%20IG%20and%20State%20IG%29.pdf

Grassley: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/27/trump-shreds-another-republicans-lifes-work/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/grassley-says-white-house-response-on-ig-firings-insufficient/2020/05/26/541e6184-9fb7-11ea-9d96-c3f7c755fd6e_story.html

https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/grassley-white-house-failed-inspectors-general-firing

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/27/white-house-thumbs-its-nose-gop-critics-inspector-general-purge/

Rubio: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/27/marco-rubio-russia-obama-282878

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/06/marco-rubio-finds-his-next-act-163932