On May 3, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General reported that in mid-2020, Trump administration officials at DHS delayed and made politically influenced changes in an intelligence study alerting the public to Russian interference in America’s 2020 election. DHS had early knowledge that Russia sought to spread disinformation about Joe Biden’s mental acuity.
The new DHS IG report matters for three key reasons: First, it dramatically illustrates how the former President’s intent to misinform the American people permeated his government departments.
Second, the report reaffirms how Trump aligned with Vladimir Putin in attacking the truth.
Third, the May 3 news reminds us of the importance of inspectors general in our system.
According to the new IG report, in mid-2020, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf intervened multiple times in the review process of a white paper on Russia’s ongoing election interference. By regulation and practice, Wolf had “no formal role in reviewing the product.”
Meanwhile, other Trump appointees at DHS sought to “blunt” the focus on Russia by adding—over the staff author’s reservations—distracting claims of interference by China and Iran. The DHS paper’s initial title, “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Electoral Dynamics,” eventually morphed to “Malign Foreign Influence Actors Denigrating Health of US Presidential Candidates.”
Tuesday’s IG report also describes Wolf reassigning a DHS undersecretary in August 2020. According to the report, at a meeting the previous month, the undersecretary—whom we now know to be whistleblower Mark Zaid—had alleged that Wolf told him that “an intelligence product should be ‘held’ because it ‘made the President look bad.’” (Wolf denies that allegation.)
Trump had cast doubt months earlier on claims that Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential campaign. The DHS study contradicted his message.
In 1789, Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of reliable public information to democracy: “[W]herever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
From Trump’s 30,573 lies during his term to the “Big Lie”—that the 2020 election was stolen—we know of his personal contempt for the truth. Importantly, the May 3 DHS IG report demonstrates how, as President, he institutionalized disinformation for his own political advantage via his departmental appointees.
The report illustrates another grave hazard: The symmetry between Putin and Trump in attacking the truth for their mutual advantage. The Russian and American presidents orchestrated parallel attacks on Biden’s cognitive capacity.
If we didn’t fully appreciate then how dangerous the mutual back-scratching of the autocrats was, we can surely appreciate it now. It isn’t hard to imagine Trump’s tepid response, had he been re-elected, to Putin’s war on Ukraine. Ukraine would likely no longer exist.
Finally, the May 3 report underscores the importance of inspectors general in our system. Their job is to reveal truths that corrupt officials are trying to hide. As Jefferson suggested, only an informed people can repair the inevitable damage that such officials do.
In case you need a chilling example of such corruption, recall that in April 2020, Trump removed Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s IG. The previous September, Atkinson had patriotically disclosed to Congress a whistleblower’s complaint that Trump’s extortionate effort to get Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Hunter Biden.
That disclosure was the basis for Trump’s first impeachment in December 2019.
The good news is that on March 10, 2022, Congress adopted additional protections for IGs that had been part of the Protecting our Democracy Act (PODA). The House has passed PODA in full; citizens can reach out to their senators to do the same to help enact the full slate of needed legal protections.
And as midterms approach, Americans who value the kinds of representatives committed to adopting such reforms have a critical role to play in preserving our constitutional republic: helping to ensure that the next Congress continues to include a majority of such members.