President Donald Trump has spent three years discrediting and sidelining institutional sources of facts, truth and trust that threaten his political and personal goals.
Rarely has that mission combined in a single day to such a grave result as it did this week. The White House rejected new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on safely reopening the country – with US deaths from the coronavirus surpassing 75,000 – and the handpicked officials leading the Justice Department dropped charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Both cases show how Trump disdains government structures meant to dispense independent and fact-based policymaking, science and justice free from corrupting political influences.
The CDC guidance contained detailed advice on safe reopening for child care programs, schools, religious communities, employers with vulnerable workers, restaurants, bars and mass transit systems.
But the White House rejected it as too stringent and too prescriptive, sources told CNN. The move was the latest instance in which Trump has ignored or downplayed CDC advice in his aggressive push to reopen the country, despite warnings from scientists that doing so could cost tens of thousands of lives. His dismissal of that guidance and White House efforts to lower the profile of his top medical advisers strengthen the impression that he has turned against a comprehensive response to the worst public health threat in 100 years.
They also foment the vacuum in national leadership from a White House that has turned over responsibility for fighting the virus to states, is squarely focused on a full-bore economic rebound and is ignoring its own guidelines on safe state reopening.
News about the rejected CDC advice came on the same day the US death toll from the pandemic passed a new milestone, with more infections reported, and days after Trump wavered on the future of his coronavirus task force. After first saying he was phasing it out – which earned sharp criticism – the President on Wednesday said it would continue “indefinitely.”
But the administration’s sharpest focus appeared to be on the Russia investigation and Trump’s conspiracy theories that he is the victim of a “Deep State” plot to subvert his presidency.
Flynn, whose plight has become a rally issue for conservative media pundits, had twice pleaded guilty in court to lying to the FBI. He lied about his contacts with Russia and his business lobbying for Turkey while he was working for Trump. He also lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Yet in Attorney General William Barr’s latest controversial intervention to shield the President, the Justice Department said that it had concluded its own case was “untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation” into Flynn.
The stunning development in the Flynn case raises fresh concerns about the independence of a Justice Department that appears to be acting as private counsel for Trump and his associates. It undercuts the principle that investigations by special counsels can ensure that sensitive investigations are not politically tainted, and suggests wide political impunity for the President and associates.
And along with his attitude toward the CDC, it appears to be yet another instance where Trump is expanding his personal power by discrediting all contrary sources of authority that expose his falsehoods, as he has done previously with the FBI, the judiciary, scientists in his own government, the media and US intelligence agencies.
CDC recommendations could slow Trump’s push to reopen economy
According to devastating unemployment data released Friday, the US economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April. The numbers show why Trump is on firm ground in arguing that the economy cannot stay closed much longer given the more than 30 million livelihoods being destroyed in shutdowns ordered to slow the spread of the virus.
But in his haste to convince states to get back to normal, the President appears to be trampling warnings about an increased death toll and precautions that could permit a stage-by-stage opening but would be unlikely to produce the quick economic resurgence he seeks.
The White House said the rejected CDC guidelines suggest that all states face the same level of threat from the virus. That reasoning, however, ignores the fact that one state may have more cases than another but the virus acts the same whether it’s in New York or Tennessee if people are not sitting at a safe distance in a restaurant, for instance.
The sidelining of the CDC guidelines effectively leaves states and businesses on their own in deciding on how to best protect workers and customers – and deprives them of the kind of expert medical advice needed in an epochal pandemic.
The move comes in a week in which Trump has pivoted from stressing the medical challenge from the pandemic – which is still raging, and getting worse in some states – and concentrated more on the need to reopen the economy as soon as possible.
Unlike in previous health crises, this White House has rarely used top CDC officials as a trusted voice of scientific rigor. Trump, who prefers to keep the spotlight on himself, has shown his medical understanding to be rudimentary while touting unproven therapies and poor predictions about the pandemic.
Richard Besser, a former acting director of the CDC, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Thursday that the agency’s reopening guidance “makes a lot of sense” and that states wanted it.
“During a public health crisis, one of the most critical success factors is trust. Does the public trust the leaders, that they are doing things to protect their health?” he asked.
“You get that trust by being transparent, by going with the public health science, by having your public health leaders out there answering tough questions from the media.”
Flynn admitted to crimes that Justice now says don’t matter
After days of political drama dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the sudden burst of action related to the Russia investigation felt like going back in time – though the way it highlighted the Trump administration’s contempt for normal presidential guardrails did have much in common with the President’s handling of the current emergency.
Flynn’s defenders argue that he was trapped into lying to the FBI by Justice officials appointed by the Obama administration. His case has been at the center of attempts by the President and conservative media to deflect from the multiple links between Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race, in which US intelligence agencies say Moscow intervened to help Trump.
Flynn’s attorneys seized on a handwritten note from Bill Priestap, the then-counterintelligence director at the FBI, that mused how agents should approach a critical interview with the then-national security adviser in January 2017.
Flynn asked then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak not to retaliate against the Obama administration’s sanctions and to oppose the Obama administration in an upcoming United Nations vote on Israel.
The Justice Department argued on Friday that the investigations into Flynn’s calls with Kislyak during the Trump transition should never have happened but that there was no underlying crime in the case. Unusually, the Justice Department filing was not signed by career prosecutors but by DC US Attorney Timothy Shea, a political appointee considered to be a key Barr ally.
The situation is so irregular because Flynn had already pleaded guilty twice and had agreed to a generous plea deal to cooperate with the Mueller team.
Flynn admitted he did “willfully and knowingly make materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements and representations” to the FBI.
In December 2018, Judge Emmet Sullivan told Flynn he was disgusted by the retired lieutenant general’s actions.
“Arguably, you sold your country out,” Sullivan said.
Former federal prosecutor Elie Honig told CNN on Thursday that he had never seen such a flagrant political act by the Justice Department.
“The fix is in,” said Honig, who’s a legal analyst for CNN.
“This is an absolute injustice. Michael Flynn lied to the FBI, he pled guilty under oath in federal court to doing that, he took a plea, and then what does Bill Barr do? He says of all the tens of thousands of cases he’s been in charge of in the Department of Justice, look at that one.
“And now we see Bill Barr doing Donald Trump’s dirty work.”
The intervention raises serious concerns about the commitment of the right to equal justice under the law, since it amounts to special treatment for a presidential associate. It focuses new attention on Barr’s conduct, after he leaned on prosecutors to soften a sentencing recommendation for another Trump crony, Roger Stone, and misrepresented special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to cover for the President.
Barr, after igniting yet another fierce Washington controversy, however, accused others of politicizing the case, despite his own unprecedented move.
“I’m doing the law’s bidding,” Barr told CBS News in an interview Thursday evening.
“I also think it’s sad that nowadays these partisan feelings are so strong that people have lost any sense of justice,” he added.