May 18, 2020

Trump fires State Department Inspector General.

Trump fires State Department Inspector General.

Plus, the results of the Tangle poll.

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Today’s read: 9 minutes.

Read times are now calculated using an approximate word count and this website. Today I’m covering Trump’s IG firing, a question about trusting media outlets, some quick hits on the big news stories and the results from last week’s Tangle poll.

Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

What D.C. is talking about.

Late Friday night, President Trump alerted Congress that he was firing the State Department Inspector General, Steve Linick. Inspectors General are exactly what they sound like: they’re the heads of investigative agencies responsible for monitoring government entities and auditing them for things like abuse, fraud and embezzlement. Linick oversees hundreds of employees at the State Department. A White House official told The Wall Street Journal that Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, recommended removing Linick and Trump agreed with his recommendation. IG’s, as they’re commonly referred to, have been in the news a lot recently.

The IG of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, was fired in April. Atkinson had deemed a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump had pressured Ukraine’s president into investigating Joe Biden “credible” and helped move it up the oversight ladder, which eventually led to Trump’s impeachment. Glenn Fine, the acting IG for the Defense Department, was also removed as chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee in early April, which was responsible for oversight on the $2 trillion of COVID-19 relief passed by Congress. When the IG of the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report saying there was a shortage of supplies and testing at hospitals, Trump questioned her independence, then replaced her. All of these stories made news, but the Friday night firing of Linick has caused some of the biggest waves.

What the left is saying.

Democrats are irate. It’s the fourth Inspector General the president has removed in six weeks — an unprecedented purge clearly designed to stifle dissent and protect bad actors in his administration. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called it a “dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people.”

Lawmakers and Democratic aides are saying that Linick had begun an inquiry into Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State who has risen in the Trump-world to the top of the food chain. Pompeo’s alleged misuse of government funds has followed him for the last year, with news reports and whistleblower complaints detailing his use of a political appointee to perform personal tasks like dog-walking or picking up dry cleaning. Linick was investigating those complaints, Democrats seem to allege, and Pompeo responded by urging his firing.

Now, Democrats say they are launching an investigation into Linick’s firing, seeking documents from the White House and State Department. The administration is legally obligated to give Congress 30 days of notice before firing an inspector general, but “previous such firings have gone through unimpeded,” AFP reported. “Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said in a statement about Linick’s firing.

What the right is saying.

Very few Republicans are defending the move. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who happens to head the general oversight committee of the United States Senate, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he’s “not crying any big crocodile tears” over the firing. Johnson argued that Inspectors General ultimately serve at the pleasure of the president, claimed “not all are created equal,” said he had issues with Linick himself and indicated that the White House had privately given him sufficient reasoning for the firing.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) issued a statement saying Linick had previously failed to “fully evaluate” the State Department’s role in “advancing the debunked Russian collusion investigation,” but conceded that the president still needed to provide Congress details of the firing. “A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress,” Grassley said.

Leslie Shedd, a spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans, said they, like Democrats, were going to look into Linick’s firing. “The State Department Inspector General performs essential oversight of the Department, so it raises questions when one is removed,” she said.

Some House Republicans declined to comment on the firing, but Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) criticized Trump freely on Twitter. “The firing of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” he said. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”

My take.

In 2016, Linick was tasked with reviewing Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. He issued reports critical of Clinton despite being appointed by Obama, most famously when he faulted her use of a private email server and said she violated the department’s policies. Clinton was claiming the opposite at the time (insisting she did not violate any department policy), and Linick’s reports were fodder for the right when criticizing her. Ultimately, his reports were part of the arsenal used to help sink her campaign for president, the foundation of the “But her emails” scandal.

As Republican Sen. Johnson is doing now, Democrats insinuated Linick was a political actor. They criticized him and insisted he issue “impartial and complete” releases of information. At the time, Linick’s office was forced to defend itself from Democratic criticism. “Any suggestion that the office is biased against any particular secretary is completely false,” Linick’s spokesperson said in 2016. If anything could inspire confidence in me, it’s seeing almost identical criticism and insinuations thrown at Linick from both sides of the aisle for doing his job.

Thus, his firing alone would have my ears perked up. But the fact this is the fourth inspector general removed, replaced or fired in 6 weeks is alarming. It’s more than alarming. Any claims that Trump is making these moves out of a desire for more independent or fairer oversight require a certain suspension of reality that is laughable. The relative silence on the right about this move speaks volumes, and even Sen. Johnson — a staunch Trump ally — was slippery in his interview with Jake Tapper. I’m not sold by a vague claim that he spoke to the administration and they gave him just reasoning for the firing. Grassley’s suggestion that Linick failed in his duties by not sufficiently investigating the State Department’s role in advancing the Russia collusion theory seems like a reach to me, and smells a lot like Grassley trying to lead the White House’s response — instead of the reverse, which is that the White House should be justifying the move to Grassley and Congress.

Congress should investigate the firing and use its authority to probe what was really behind it. If, as it appears, the move was designed to protect Pompeo, then Congress should move to punish him to the fullest extent the law allows.

Quick hits.

  1. On Friday, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion “Heroes Act” designed as another wave of COVID-19 response. The bill has no chance to become law, but is viewed as a “starting point” for negotiations. It calls for an extension of the $600/week increase in federal unemployment benefits through January 2021, another round of $1,200 checks, and hundreds of billions of dollars to state governments and hazard pay for essential workers.
  2. Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) announced over the weekend that he was abandoning his plans to run as a third-party candidate. Amash said it has become clear he could not campaign during the pandemic in a way that would give him a realistic shot to win. Democrats and Republicans alike had feared he would hurt Biden and Trump, respectively, if he entered the race.
  3. Former Bill Clinton political director Doug Sosnick made waves after he laid out how Joe Biden could win in 2020. Sosnick writes for Axios that Biden’s best path to winning in November is by capturing Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona, and suggested the campaign focus its energy in those three states. A win in Arizona would represent the end of a political realignment that has turned the traditionally red state blue.
Sosnick’s map for a Joe Biden victory, which he created on
  1. President Obama took some thinly veiled shots at the Trump administration during a series of virtual commencement speeches this weekend. The virus has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” the former president said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
  2. In a sign of things to come, Donald Trump Jr. posted an Instagram message on Saturday that vaguely suggested Joe Biden was a pedophile. Trump Jr. insisted he was “joking around,” but said on Twitter that “If the media doesn’t want people mocking & making jokes about how creepy Joe is, then maybe he should stop the unwanted touching & keep his hands to himself?”

Your questions, answered.

Q: I tend to distrust news/political media because I think they always have an angle or a goal that is not necessarily to tell me the news. As you have said, you believe them to generally do great work, how did you come to trust them? How can I trust them more? Should you trust them less?

— Dan, Los Alamos, NM

Tangle: One thing that’s important here is to make a distinction between media outlets. There are important caveats all around, so please read my answer in full.

As I often write in this newsletter, anytime someone speaks about “the media” as a monolith they are probably selling you snake oil. All media outlets are not created equally. When I say I generally trust news outlets to do great work, I am referring to a few select newsrooms: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and The Washington Post being top of mind. TIME Magazine, Bloomberg and CBS are probably right there with them.

Why do I trust them? At the best media companies in the world, there are a few reasons. One is that newsrooms have standards. The New York Times (typically) is not going to publish innuendo, conspiracy or rumor — they have a team of editors and journalists who will and do lose their jobs when they make mistakes. That accountability demands accuracy, and The Times — like WaPo or WSJ — will not hesitate to let reporters go who screw up. Publishing lies or misleading news in those papers also makes you liable for lawsuits, which are expensive and arduous affairs for newsrooms. These are strong incentives against publishing crap.

I’ve come to trust them because I know some of those journalists, I’ve learned from them, I’ve watched them mess up and I’ve experienced what it’s like to write for them. When I freelanced for TIME Magazine, I got a list of questions and edits from the editor there that was longer than the actual piece of writing I submitted. Even after I answered many of their questions, or provided the source material for their queries, they were reluctant to publish certain facts that I wrote without qualifiers or clarification. The editing process was meticulous and challenging and thorough and gave me a huge deal of confidence in what I read in TIME Magazine.

I also think Americans forget that journalists are mostly regular people. When you’re in a newsroom, you are not getting calls from the CEO of NBC telling you to kill a story because it damages their friend’s reputation. That stuff is almost entirely fictional. 99% of reporters are middle-class Americans fighting like hell to do their absolute best work so they can keep their jobs and pay their rent. Making mistakes, or publishing something without being able to back it up with evidence, is the quickest way to dynamite your career. No reporter — none — wants to make a mistake.

Of course, there are widespread systemic issues in journalism. Some reporters are lazy and on autopilot, getting the same information from the same sources over and over. All reporters have political biases, so while they may not lie in their reporting they omit facts that would otherwise complicate it. Some reporters are motivated to drive traffic, so their reporting is inherently sensational or dramatic when it shouldn’t be.

And, sometimes, the public mistakes opinion pieces for reporting. Primetime television hosts like Don Lemon or Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow are not journalists. They’re television hosts — talking heads who make millions of dollars a year and have an agenda. Yes, someone like Maddow has a degree in public policy and went to Oxford. I’m not saying she’s the same as Don Lemon or Sean Hannity, but I am saying she’s not being held to the same standards as a beat reporter at The New York Times. She is openly and unapologetically liberal, and she’s often serving her audience what they want to hear, through her own liberal lens.

So, when I say I “generally trust” some media outlets — I mean that I read The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal’s news sections with a healthy skepticism but under the (accurate) assumption that if I am reading a sentence, it has been thoroughly vetted and edited by a team of people motivated to do a good job. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, or there aren’t some bad apples, it just means that’s not my default presumption. Of course, a story in the WSJ and NYT about the exact same topic will be written differently, and that’s one of the many reasons why I created Tangle. This newsletter gives a holistic view of a story, pulling sets of facts from across the media landscape — and all the sources informing those various news outlets — in order to paint the fullest and most balanced picture possible.

The upshot is that I trust great news outlets because they are full of good journalists who are regular people that are motivated to do good work and to avoid mistakes, and they have a team of people around them trying to prevent them from embarrassing themselves. The system doesn’t always work, but accountability still tends to prevail.

A story that matters.

The New York Times and Axios each released deep analyses that came to the same conclusions: COVID-19 cases are trending downward across the U.S. However, both had major caveats. About 32 states are testing more people and finding fewer positive results, a positive trend. New York and New Jersey, two of the hardest-hit states, are leading the pack in reduced infections. However, five states — Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana and South Dakota — are seeing new cases increase, according to The New York Times. New case counts are mostly steady everywhere else. The new analysis indicates the U.S. is largely headed in the right direction, but still falling short of where it needs to be as many states are slowly easing social distancing restrictions. Epidemiologists continue to warn that could lead to an immediate reversal of these trends. You can read the Axios analysis here and the Times analysis here.

Numbers (about you).

Today’s numbers section is pulled from last week’s Tangle poll, and includes a bunch of interesting data from Tangle readers.

  • 662. The number of people who took last week’s Tangle poll.
  • 3.8%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they had been tested for COVID-19.
  • 68.2%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they knew someone who had been tested for COVID-19.
  • 22.2%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they or someone they knew had received an antibody test to determine if they had the virus.
  • 22.9%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they are living in a state with a stay-at-home that has been lifted.
  • 23.5%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they are more concerned about the health impacts of COVID-19 than they were a month ago.
  • 17.7%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they are less concerned about the health impacts of COVID-19 than they were a month ago.
  • 49.5%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they are more concerned about the economic impacts of COVID-19 than they were a month ago.
  • 48.1%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said they read the entire newsletter every day.
  • 20.8%. The percentage of Tangle readers who say they are most likely to skip the “Your questions, answered” section, the highest of any section.
  • 1.1%. The percentage of Tangle readers who say they are most likely to skip the “My take” section, the lowest of any section (thank you!).
  • 16.9%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said the length of an average newsletter is usually a little too long.
  • 68.1%.  The percentage of Tangle readers who said the length of an average newsletter is usually just about right.

Have a nice day.

There is positive movement on the COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna, the biotech company leading an effort to create a coronavirus vaccine in the U.S., announced “promising early results from its first human safety tests” on Monday, The Washington Post reported. The company is set to launch a large clinical trial in July to test the efficacy of the vaccine. In the United Kingdom, the government says it is preparing to roll out 30 million doses of the vaccine the Oxford group is pursuing — if it proves effective. The preparation is a risk worth taking, and sets the government up for a massive distribution effort should the vaccine continue to pass hurdles in the clinical trial phases. Click.

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