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Defending the guardrails of American democracy

Melvin B. Miller
Defending the guardrails of American democracy
“To fire the inspector generals is like leaving the bank vault door open.”

A U.S. president with a despotic inclination might find it difficult to impose a tyrannical regimen on the American people. First of all, he would have to neutralize the present guardrails of democracy: both the system of inspector generals and free and open elections.

The Founding Fathers of the republic understood that many men aspiring to be president might also be inclined to be authoritarian. Consequently, they drafted a constitution that would divide the power of government among three equal bodies — the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.

While this worked much of the time because of the acceptance and commitment of the officeholders, this structure was nonetheless flawed. The president, as commander in chief, controlled the nation’s military capacity, and he could refuse to cooperate with other co-branches of government. The reality of this problem became apparent when Donald Trump refused to provide documents to Congress as required and Congress lacked the resources to enforce compliance.

Congress was aware of this problem for decades. In 1978, Congress established the Inspector General Act to facilitate congressional oversight of executive agencies in order to be aware of any misconduct, waste or fraud in the management of programs that Congress had established. There are currently 73 inspectors general in various agencies.

One of the important tasks of the inspector general is to communicate in private with whistleblowers. The IGs are required by law to conceal the identity of whistleblowers who come forth to report violations of the rules or regulations of their agencies. This is the procedure that led to an investigation of Trump by the House of Representatives that ultimately enabled them to impeach him.

Michael K. Atkinson, the inspector general for intelligence matters, reported the whistleblower’s complaint to the director of national intelligence who then disclosed to Congress that Trump was involved in a profoundly inappropriate telephone call with the new president of Ukraine. This telephone call served as the primary basis for the congressional impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Trump has fired Atkinson, but he is required to provide a letter indicating a sound reason for this action. So far there has been no report of the letter having been received by the Senate. However, Trump has openly admitted that he fired Atkinson in retribution for reporting what Trump insists was “a beautiful phone call.”

Now that he is aware of the power of the IG, Trump has decided to remove independent IGs involved in aspects of the management of the $2.2 trillion in programs to rebuild the American economy that will be managed by the Treasury. Without proper independent oversight, this could allow for the largest scam in history.

Trump has also not lost sight of the other guardrail — free and open elections. He and other Republican leaders have launched a campaign to characterize mail-in votes as an effective fraud. There is no evidence to support this view, but the protest now creates a psychological foundation to challenge later election losses. There is also an effort to prevent mail-in voting campaigns that will increase the turnout of blacks and Latinos, who usually vote Democrat.

Congress established the IG system to curtail the violations of the Richard Nixon administration. Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans are now willing to diminish American democracy in favor of a despotic president.

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