President Donald Trump is moving aggressively to challenge the authority and independence of agency watchdogs overseeing his administration, including removing the inspector general tasked with overseeing the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package that passed Congress with bipartisan support.
In four days, Trump has fired one inspector general tied to his impeachment, castigated another he felt was overly critical of the coronavirus response and sidelined a third meant to safeguard against wasteful spending of the coronavirus funds.
The actions have sent shock waves across the close-knit network of watchdog officials in government, creating open conflict between a president reflexively resistant to outside criticism and an oversight community tasked with rooting out fraud, misconduct and abuse.
The most recent act threatens to upend scrutiny of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue effort now underway, setting the stage for a major clash between Trump, government watchdogs and Democrats who are demanding oversight of the vast funds being pumped into the American economy.
"We're seeing since Friday a wrecking ball across the IG community," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.
The latest broadside came Tuesday when the Defense Department revealed that Trump had removed acting inspector general Glenn Fine, an experienced official, from his role as head of a coronavirus spending oversight board. It was unclear who might replace Fine, who also lost his title as acting inspector general.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Fine's abrupt removal "part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the president against independent overseers." Trump, she said, is attempting to "disregard critical oversight provisions that hold the administration accountable to the law."
Trump himself shed little light on the decision as he spoke to reporters Tuesday evening, saying he doesn't know Fine, but had "heard the name."
A day earlier, Trump had asserted without evidence that an inspector general report warning of shortages of coronavirus testing in hospitals was "just wrong" and skewed by political bias. The report surveyed more than 300 U.S. hospitals.
"Did I hear the word inspector general? Really?" Trump said when pressed about the Health and Human Services watchdog report.
"Give me the name of the inspector general," Trump demanded, before asking, "Could politics be entered into that?" The acting Health and Human Services inspector general, Christi A. Grimm, is a career employee who took over the position early this year in an interim capacity.
Most dramatic of all was Friday's late-night firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who drew Trump's disdain for notifying Congress of an anonymous whistleblower complaint on Ukraine. The complaint led to the president's impeachment.
Trump defended the firing by complaining that Atkinson had never spoken with him about the complaint, even though Atkinson's job is to provide oversight independent of the White House.
The dismissal prompted a sharply worded statement from Justice Department watchdog Michael Horowitz, who chairs a council of agency inspectors general and who last month had announced Fine's appointment to the pandemic oversight board.
Diverging from Trump's condemnation of Atkinson as "terrible," Horowitz called Atkinson's handling of the whistleblower complaint an example of "integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law."
And he pointedly noted that the inspector general community will continue to do its job, including oversight of the more than $2 trillion in coronavirus aid.
The role of the modern-day inspector general dates to post-Watergate Washington, when Congress installed offices inside agencies as an independent check against mismanagement and abuse of power. Though inspectors general are presidential appointees, some, like Horowitz, serve presidents of both parties. All are expected to be nonpartisan.
Over the years, inspectors general have exposed grave problems through their investigations and humbled, or even embarrassed, agency leaders and presidential administrations.
Monday's Health and Human Services report that angered the president chronicled long waits for coronavirus test results and supply shortages at hospitals across the country.
Horowitz, meanwhile has identified significant flaws in the FBI's surveillance during the Russia investigation. Trump has praised Horowitz's findings even as he's attacked his credibility for not finding evidence of political bias in the Russia probe, pejoratively describing him last December as an Obama appointee.
Former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich said Trump perceives inspector general offices to have a "uniquely threatening function within the executive branch, which is to provide independent oversight of governmental functions."
"It's just something that doesn't compute for him," Bromwich added. "He understands the value of loyalty. He doesn't understand the value of independence because that can conflict with loyalty."
Even before this week, Democrats and good-government advocates feared that Trump was using the coronavirus rescue package to reward loyalty. He generated consternation by selecting Brian Miller, who works in the White House counsel's office, to a new Treasury Department position overseeing $500 billion in coronavirus aid to industry.
Miller has worked at the Justice Department and was inspector general for nearly a decade at the General Services Administration, which oversees thousands of federal contracts. Though he is respected in the oversight community, Miller's role in the White House counsel's office is troubling, watchdog groups said.
Democratic lawmakers had already questioned whether someone who worked for the president could be independent, concerns that were accelerated by Fine's replacement.
"The president now has engaged in a series of actions designed to neuter any kind of oversight of his actions and that of the administration during a time of national crisis, when trillions of dollars are being allocated to help the American people," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told The Associated Press.
But Trump has made clear his willingness to flout that system, perhaps foreshadowing the chaos of the last week.
As lawmakers were in the final stages of drafting what became the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, he declared, "I'll be the oversight." And even when he signed it, he attached a statement that says some of the oversight provisions in the law "raise constitutional concerns" and may not be followed.
New York state recorded 731 new coronavirus deaths Tuesday, marking the biggest one-day jump in the outbreak. The state's death toll since the beginning of the outbreak is now 5,489, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
More people have now died from the coronavirus in New York City than perished in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
At least 3,202 people have been killed in the city by the virus, according to a new count released by city health officials Tuesday.
The deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil killed 2,753 people in the city and 2,977 overall, when hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001.
The coronavirus has again made New York ground zero in a national tragedy and the center of a crisis that is reshaping Americans' lives, liberties and fears.
"9/11 transformed society. ... You had a sense of vulnerability that you never had before, which I feel to this day," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a coronavirus briefing last month. "There was a trauma to 9/11. But as a society, as a country, we have been blessed in that we have not gone through something as disruptive as this."
The coronavirus death toll has mounted over the course of just a few weeks. The city recorded its first on March 13, less than two weeks after confirming its first infection.
Here are other coronavirus developments in New York:
Hospital Ship Infection
A crew member of a Navy hospital ship sent to New York City for the coronavirus outbreak has tested positive for the disease.
The USNS Comfort crew member tested positive Monday and was being isolated, the Navy said in a prepared statement. The positive test will not affect the 1,000-bed hospital ship's mission to receive patients, according to the Navy.
The Comfort has treated about 40 non-COVID-19 patients since arriving in the city last week, prompting complaints it was doing little to help overburdened hospitals in the area.
President Donald Trump said Monday he agreed to take COVID-19 patients aboard the ship after speaking with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Federal officials say emergency patients will now be seen on the ship, whether or not they have the virus, though the ship can only isolate only a small number of patients.
The U.S. surgeon general says that Americans should brace for levels of tragedy reminiscent of the Sept. 11 attacks and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, while the nation's infectious disease chief warned that the new coronavirus may never be completely eradicated from the globe.
Those were some of the most grim assessments yet for the immediate future and beyond. But hours later, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence tried to strike more optimistic tones, suggesting that hard weeks ahead could mean beginning to turn a corner.
"We're starting to see light at the end of the tunnel," Trump said at a Sunday evening White House briefing. Pence added, "We are beginning to see glimmers of progress."
The president also insisted that both assessments from his administration — they came within 12 hours of each other — didn't represent an about-face or were even "that different."
"I think we all know that we have to reach a certain point — and that point is going to be a horrific point in terms of death — but it's also a point at which things are going to start changing," Trump said. "We're getting very close to that level right now."
The president added that he thought the next two weeks "are going to be very difficult. At the same time, we understand what they represent and what that time represents and, hopefully, we can get this over with."
Still, Trump's own briefing also struck a somber tone at times. The president offered some of his most extensive comments to date to the families of those killed by the virus, urging the nation to pray for them and "ask God to comfort them in their hour of grief."
"With the faith of our families and the spirit of our people and the grace of our God we will endure," the president said. "We will overcome."
Earlier Sunday, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told CNN, "This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans' lives, quite frankly."
"This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it's not going to be localized," said Adams, the nation's top doctor. "It's going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that."
The number of people infected in the U.S. has exceeded 337,000, with the death toll climbing past 9,600. More than 4,100 of those deaths are in the state of New York, but a glimmer of hope there came on Sunday when Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state registered a small dip in new fatalities over a 24-hour period. Still, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said his state may run out of ventilators by week's end.
Former Vice President Joe Biden suggested his party's presidential nominating convention, already pushed from July into August because of the outbreak, may have to move fully online to avoid packing thousands of people into an arena in Milwaukee.
Biden has all but clinched his party's presidential nomination and held an online town hall from his home in Delaware at the same time Trump was addressing reporters. His tone was far less confrontational than Trump, who clashed with reporters and criticized Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker as being demanding and complaining while having "not performed well."
Biden sought to be uplifting and almost grandfatherly, taking questions from children with his wife. But he also said the president "has been awful slow" to use the powers of his office to compel private companies to make protective equipment for doctors and nurses, adding that "we should be much more aggressive."
Trump angrily deflected questions regarding the slow pace of the federal government's response to the pandemic, praising federal officials he has elevated in recent weeks to coordinate the distribution of hard-to-find supplies.
"The people that you're looking at, FEMA, the military, what they've done is a miracle," Trump told reporters. "What they've done is a miracle in getting all of this stuff. What they have done for states is incredible."
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Also Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the toll in the coming week is "going to be shocking to some, but that's what is going to happen before it turns around, so just buckle down."
Fauci said the virus probably won't be wiped out entirely this year, and that unless the world gets it under control, it will "assume a seasonal nature."
"We need to be prepared that, since it unlikely will be completely eradicated from the planet, that as we get into next season, we may see the beginning of a resurgence," Fauci said. "That's the reason why we're pushing so hard in getting our preparedness much better than it was."
The Defense Department released new requirements that all individuals on its property "will wear cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers." That is in compliance with new federal guidelines that Americans use face coverings when venturing out.
Trump had said previously that he's choosing not to wear a face mask and scoffed at the idea of using one while answering questions as he held news briefings like Sunday night's.
"I would wear one," he said, but only "if I thought it was important."
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday that Americans are bracing for probably the toughest week during which a lot of deaths will occur due to COVID-19.
"The U.S. will reach a horrific point in terms of death," Trump said, while voicing his optimism that "it will be a point where things will start changing for the better."
The president said that some 1.6 million people in the country have been tested for COVID-19 and received results.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States reached 337,620 as of midnight on Sunday local time (0400 GMT on Monday), with 9,643 deaths, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Trump, who made the remarks during the White House Coronavirus Task Force news briefing, also said that by Tuesday, 3,000 military and public health workers will be deployed across the nation to cope with the pandemic.
The federal government will be sending some 600,000 N95 respirators Monday to New York State, the national epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
Meanwhile, the country is stepping up the development of treatments for COVID-19 patients, including experimenting with anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and blood-related therapies.
At the same briefing, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said hydroxychloroquine will be used in a trial covering 3,000 patients at a hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and the results will be tracked in a formal study.
Last week, Trump said hydroxychloroquine was being administered to 1,100 patients in New York along with Z-Pak, or azithromycin.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the White House briefing on Saturday there was no "definitive information to be able to make any comment" on whether the drug can be used to treat coronavirus.
In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo said that a decline in coronavirus-related deaths has occurred in the state, which could mean that the apex is almost here or it may be just "a blip."
The hardest-hit state has reported over 123,000 cases, outnumbering the total cases in Germany. Over 4,000 deaths occurred, with over 3,000 in New York City.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city's medical supplies could make it through the middle of the week, which is better than expected.
"We thought as early as tonight there was the possibility of running out of crucial equipment like ventilators," said the mayor. "We have bought a few more days here. We believe now we can get to Tuesday or Wednesday with the supplies that we have."
The city will need 1,000 to 1,500 more ventilators for the rest of the week, he said, adding that an additional 45,000 medical personnel of every variety are also needed to fight the pandemic.
As the coronavirus spread across the world and began its reach into the United States, an assortment of Americans from the president on down summoned one notion as they framed the emerging cataclysm.
"The Chinese virus," they called it — or, in a few particularly racist cases, the "kung flu." No matter the terminology of choice, the message was clear: Whatever the ravages of COVID-19 are causing, it's somewhere else's fault.
Not someone. Somewhere.
A thick thread of the American experience has always been to hold the rest of the world at arm's length, whether in economics, technology or cultural exchange. The truth is, this nation has always been a bit of an island, a place where multilingualism, or even holding a passport, is less common than in many other lands.
Now, the notion of a virus that came from a distant "elsewhere" stands to carve deeper grooves into that landscape.
"It's a continuation of the same kinds of fears that we have had," says Jennifer Sciubba, an international studies professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. "We've seen this conversation before."
As the outbreak worsens by the day, the United States, like other nations, is drawing quite literally inward. With little ability to plan and increasing numbers of Americans out of work, that's a natural reaction. "The coronavirus is killing globalization as we know it," one foreign-affairs journal said.
It's unlikely that much of the globalization that touches Americans daily — the parts in their iPhones, the cheap consumer goods, the out-of-season fruit in their produce aisles, the ability to communicate around the world virtually — is going anywhere, at least for good.
But a protracted period of coronavirus anxiety and impact will almost certainly redraw — and in many cases reinforce — opinions about the wider world's role in American lives.
Throughout its 244-year existence, America's relationship with the rest of the world has been marked by the tension between working together with other nations, or going it alone as a land of "rugged individualists."
Isolationism was, in fact, a dominant American policy until the 20th century — except when it wasn't, like when those millions of immigrants arrived from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe and other somewhere elses to become American.
Geography played a role in early isolationist attitudes. Insulated by oceans, the United States bordered only two nations, which often meant no regular exposure to people who were different. What's more, many communities, particularly on the frontier, had to be insular to survive — even as they desperately needed goods from "civilization" back East.
The most obvious motivation, however, is economic, in the form of a perceived loss of opportunities.
Since the Industrial Revolution's beginnings in the 19th century, chunks of the population have exhibited wariness of outsiders willing to work for less and take jobs from longer-term Americans. That has proven fertile ground for populist politicians to exploit.
Finally, of course, there's fear — of an unknown other, the kind that allows a word like "globalism" to evolve into a sinister, sometimes anti-Semitic epithet. "It's a human condition to fear the unknown. So people clump it all into 'danger' or 'stay away'," says Jeffrey Martinson, a political scientist at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The important thing to remember, advocates of engagement say, is this: Since World War II in particular, Americans have benefited from the fruits of engagement as much as they've suffered from its detriments.
"The pandemic has shown that illness and other aspects of life now can't be stopped by borders," says Scott Wilson, a political scientist at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, who helps lead the institution's global initiatives.
"It has shown the importance of integration in terms of the response," Wilson says. "Without global institutions and global cooperation, we would be in much worse shape. … We can't turn that back."
So what happens next? Presuming American society emerges from the spring (and summer?) of coronavirus largely intact, where does its global-engagement discussion go?
Jonathan Cristol, a research fellow at Adelphi University's Levermore Global Scholars Program in New York, predicts that the coronavirus will "provide ammunition for all sides."
"People … opposed to globalization and free trade will use the spread of the pathogen as an argument for why we need to roll back globalization. That will be framed in terms of immigration, in terms of anti-Chinese sentiment," he says. "And the people who favor interconnectedness will use the working together toward a common purpose as a way to back up their argument."
One side effect of the virus era may actually stimulate globalization. Stripped of their ability to travel or meet in person, humans have doubled down on virtual communication more fundamentally than ever. That means the person two doors down presents in the same way as the one two continents away — as a pixelated image on a screen.
"I could see the shift to online work actually encouraging links around the world," says Stephen L.S. Smith, an economist at Hope College in Michigan who focuses on global trade. "It could end with a deeper globalization, but one that was more cognizant with security risks."
That's the question in a post-virus United States, a more distilled version of its pre-COVID counterpart: How to shape the American place in the world to benefit as many as possible without compromising the control and sovereignty so valued by many in a land that sometimes considers itself an exception to global rules?
"If the pandemic teaches us nothing else, it shows that we are all in this together. We are all vulnerable to forces like this," says Betty Cruz, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, which fosters international engagement.
"Insularity isn't something that we can afford. Period," Cruz says. "The entire nation can't afford to not be globally connected. So it's not how do we get back to normal, but how do we create a new normal with connections that are deeper than before?"