Checks and Balances

Alan Zendell, May 20, 2020

Our republic has survived in reasonably democratic fashion for two-and-a-half centuries, in part because of the checks and balances that were put in place to assure that no individual(s) can accumulate too much unchecked Executive power. The two principal ways that occurs are by Congressional Oversight and internal reviews by Inspectors General.

In the case of the former, we have seen President Trump attempt to nullify Congress’ role every time either the House or Senate questioned an executive action. Trump, more than any president in a century, has been relentless in attempting to undo the constitutionally mandated role of the Congress to oversee the actions of the Executive Branch, and he has been enabled in doing so largely by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But McConnell is only one Senator. His power to decide on behalf of the Senate only exists because most of his Republican caucus believes their self interest lies in supporting the President, right or wrong.

Every Department in the Executive Branch has an internal watchdog function directed by its Inspector General. In the past, most Inspectors General have acted with good faith and integrity, much like the internal affairs bureaus of police departments. In my thirty-seven years working for the federal government, nothing was more intimidating than a notification of a review by the IG’s office. No one ever challenged either their influence or authority – at least until now.

In the Trump Administration, undermining Inspectors General has become an accepted way of doing business. Trump fired four IGs in the past few months, most recently, Steve Linick of the Defense Department. The President has the legal authority to fire anyone in the Executive Branch, but oversight functions are supposed to be nonpolitical. Trump, on the other hand, has weaponized his power to fire and replace to retaliate against anyone who does not sufficiently demonstrate personal loyalty to him.

That’s not the way things are supposed to work in America, but Trump has made it clear from the start that he craves the kind of power wielded by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong- Un. He is driven by a megalomaniacal compulsion for absolute control. He throws tantrums whenever anyone challenges his view that Article 2 of the Constitution gives him the power to do anything he wants. It doesn’t.

The latest example is the firing of Linick. While some have suggested that it was provoked by an investigation of personal improprieties by Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo and his wife, it’s clear that it was really about the $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia which Congress blocked in reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s continuing involvement in the Yemenese civil war. By law, all arms sales to foreign governments must be approved by Congress. But Trump declared a national emergency to bypass Congress and directed Pompeo to proceed with the sale, which included American nuclear technology.

According to Politico, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said, “[Linick’s] office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia.” Although that sounds political, it is exactly what is supposed to happen when either branch of Congress suspects inappropriate behavior on the part of the Executive Branch. Pompeo made it political by requesting that Trump fire Linick to defuse his review, though the request was obviously cover for Trump, who needed an excuse to get rid of Linick.

This is especially troubling, not only because it is the latest in a long list of Trump administration power grabs, but because of the troubled history of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Congress felt deceived by the both the Bush Administration and the Saudis in the aftermath of nine-eleven, leading to our nearly twenty-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The current distrust of the relationship between the administration and Saudi Arabia isn’t partisan, as a number of Republican Senators supported blocking the arms deal.  

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), (better late than never?) introduced legislation to require Congressional review of actions like Linick’s firing, claiming that Pompeo and Trump are guilty of “circumventing the congressional role in the advise-and-consent of arms sales to foreign nations.” Nice try, Senator. Don’t hold your breath waiting for McConnell to allow Republicans to support it.

The essential point here is that Trump has systematically attempted to dismantle the protections in the Constitution intended to preserve our democracy, and the Republican majority Senate has refused to intervene for three-and-a-half years. Whether they’re willing to take a stand now will tell us a lot about our future as nation. It may also indicate how far out on a limb they’re willing to go to support Trump as the election approaches.

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