The Trump administration has placed civil servants and nonpolitical government employees in a terrible position. Their job is to provide accurate, nonpartisan information and make decisions grounded in law; sometimes that involves providing testimony to Congress, which legally must be truthful. Yet if they tell the truth, President Donald Trump and his allies will publicly crucify them. Bureaucrats, of course, are not viewed by most people as terribly sympathetic victims, but if you shoot these messengers, you end up wounding citizens. Taxpayers send money to the government so it can develop accurate information, not partisan pabulum—but Trump is doing all he can to change that.
Yesterday, the Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog within the federal government, released a decision on whether the Trump administration violated the law by freezing millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine. The GAO found that it wasn’t even a close call.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the decision states. “Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA.”
In a reality-based world, this would at least be embarrassing for the president. His allies could still argue, of course, that the error was innocent or minor enough not to warrant impeachment. But the precepts of the Trump-era GOP state that admitting that the president might have erred, even in good faith, is forbidden. Hence Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin dismissed the GAO report—literally a report on whether the law was followed—as “legalistic.”
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama took an even more laughable tack. “Timing looked a little suspect to everybody I think,” he told CNN. “I’ve never known GAO to get involved in partisan politics and stuff like that. It’s probably not good for the GAO.”
Notably, Shelby’s concern isn’t that the report might be inaccurate. It’s that it might be politically inconvenient. Setting aside the semi-veiled threat—nice nonpartisan office you’ve got there; shame if some partisans took offense and wrecked it—Shelby’s comment is absurd. As GAO General Counsel Thomas Armstrong wrote in the decision, the office is simply discharging its statutory duty: A senator, the Democrat Chris Van Hollen, asked for an investigation, and GAO did what it’s required to do.
The concern over the timing is a red herring, too. There’s no more opportune time for GAO to issue a report on whether the administration broke the law on the Ukraine aid than at the very moment the Senate is opening an impeachment trial of the president over the Ukraine scandal. But one man’s opportune is another’s—specifically Trump’s—inconvenient, and the messenger gets caught in the middle.
Is it any wonder that other officials would just as soon opt out? Every year, the nation’s top intelligence officials brief the House and Senate on their “worldwide threat assessment”—part of the proceeding in public, and other parts behind closed doors due to sensitivities. Last year’s public edition was a fiasco. The intelligence chiefs came, and they spoke candidly about North Korea and the Islamic State, with the unfortunate coincidence that the truth was at odds with what Trump had been claiming publicly. The president tweeted, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” and claimed that officials told him they’d been misquoted. Again: The hearing was public and video is available.
The intelligence officials don’t have much choice. They can’t come to Congress and lie. But telling the truth puts them in conflict with their boss. So this time around, they’re simply trying to persuade Congress not to hold a public hearing, Politico reports. The message is that they can tell the truth, but not where it might create friction with the truth-free president. And that means ordinary Americans won’t get to hear for themselves about the greatest threats they face.
The Washington Post recently reported on an investigation by the Justice Department into Hillary Clinton. After Trump became president, having insisted that Clinton hadn’t been properly investigated, DOJ appointed a U.S. attorney to do a review. But the Post reported that the prosecutor hadn’t found anything. In fact, the review was effectively complete before Special Counsel Robert Mueller produced his report in May. But there’s been no official closure. It isn’t hard to guess at why: Who wants to be the one to tell Trump that the investigation didn’t find anything?
The inability to give Trump tough news, for fear of being the latest messenger to face the firing squad, seems to recur at the Justice Department. A Trump-mandated prosecution of Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, for leaking has hit a mysterious delay. An expected indictment never arrived, fueling speculation that a grand jury declined to indict him—a stunning defeat for prosecutors if true. Nonetheless, the Justice Department is now looking into an old leak allegedly by former FBI Director James Comey, a move experts say is unusual.
There have been examples of this tension since the very beginning of the Trump administration, when the National Park Service was caught between the facts (the crowd for Trump’s inauguration was smaller than for Barack Obama’s first) and the president’s demand that the answer be politically useful to him.
That was embarrassing and perplexing, though also largely irrelevant in immediate effect. But some of the more recent examples have much more real-world impact. Last fall, Trump claimed, falsely and pointlessly, that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama. He refused to admit any error, even sloppily editing a map with a Sharpie to try to back his point up; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was dragooned into giving a statement that put Trump’s nonsense above the facts that the nation’s forecasters actually produced.
It’s not clear that anyone was harmed by that, but if it had gone the other way, or if it undermines faith in forecasts, it could be a matter of survival, just like the worldwide threat assessment. If the government’s apparatus is swung to back up partisan conclusions, and public servants are afraid to speak the truth, the messengers won’t be the only ones to suffer.