Donald Trump is not the only person who has been keeping evidence from law enforcement. The news cycle has been rocked for weeks by revelations that Secret Service agents deleted text messages, wiped their phones, and otherwise disappeared evidence related to their activities during Donald Trump’s attempted coup. These revelations are horrifying, as are the profound dangers such actions pose to our collective safety. Of course, it’s not just the threat to our national, personal, and political security that should inspire terror, but also how these behaviors fundamentally challenge the most effective tool that the public has to ensure accountability from its government: transparency.
How we got here—to a place where the public and its representatives may simply never know what some of the highest officials in our national security apparatus were doing or saying as the seat of American democracy was invaded by conspiracists literally out for the blood of lawmakers—is a tale of many-pronged failures. It is not just the fact that the nation’s robust law enforcement network is seemingly littered with officers (both state and federal) who are apparently sympathetic to the rhetoric that led to January 6th, as well as with those who actively participated in it. That is certainly a significant piece of this nightmarish puzzle, but this profound scandal is also a direct consequence of Biden’s retention of multiple partisan political actors – handpicked by the treasonous former President – who remain in critical positions of power across the federal landscape.
Biden needs to treat Trump’s handpicked minions as if Trump was and is what Biden has termed him, i.e., a threat to democracy. That means Biden must fire holdover Trump political appointees before they further undermine the rule of law.
Cuffari and the Coup
It was Secret Service agents themselves who seem to have irrevocably destroyed documents that had been requested by four congressional investigative committees as well as by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General’s Office. Yet it was the Trump-holdover Inspector General and his staff who appear to have facilitated this scandal, and insulated these selfsame figures from congressional and public oversight, by “[failing] to notify Congress for more than a year that critical evidence in this investigation was missing, […] deliberately cho[osing] not to pursue that evidence and then appear[ing] to have taken steps to cover up these failures.”
Joseph Cuffari was nominated by Donald Trump to head the DHS watchdog office in November of 2018 and was confirmed by the Senate in July of 2019. He has long been considered a concerning choice for this crucial oversight position, and has been described as the “kind of laissez-faire watchdog Trump [was] looking for” when seeking to nominate IGs friendly to his cause. Cuffari’s tenure at DHS has been defined as “nearly dormant” by The Washington Post, a tagline he earned by producing a mere fraction of the reports the pre-Cuffari DHS OIG had grown accustomed to. Essentially, while responsible for oversight of the federal government’s third largest agency, Cuffari has ensured his watchdog office is asleep at the wheel.
It is this laissez-faire environment that allowed for – if not facilitated – the wanton destruction of crucial materials that were (and remain) of interest to other federal agents and agencies, Congress, and the public at large.
The development of such an absentee accountability culture at the DHS was not by accident. It was the exact environment Donald Trump sought to construct when he purged the executive branch of multiple well-respected and long-established IGs and other leadership during his presidency. In short, this is what happens when you keep the nefarious actors installed by a nefarious President in positions of authority and influence at crucial federal agencies.
We at the Revolving Door Project have long argued that Trump cronies – those who survived the former President’s intensive ideological purity tests and otherwise satisfied the gross fealty requirements he imposed on the civil service – should all have been removed from office on Day One of Biden’s presidency. We warned of the grave potential consequences of keeping these figures in their leadership roles. We didn’t want to be proven right. However, our worst fears have been realized in the fact that Biden’s misbegotten commitment to some long-destroyed vision of normalcy is exactly what allowed for the fomentation of this crisis of transparency and accountability that continues to endanger our democracy.
But Wait, There’s More
Unfortunately, it’s not just Cuffari or this latest, most public scandal that we should be concerned about. Trump holdovers still populate critical agencies across the federal government and continue to pose a threat to the security of our democracy and the primacy of the public interest in governance. This case is merely a symptom of a larger, more sinister issue. To address it, Biden must act now to remove Cuffari and his staff from their DHS positions, and finally remove the other Trump holdovers that litter his government, imperil his agenda, and threaten our collective security.
He could start with these national security figures:
Sean O’Donnell at the Department of Defense
Sean O’Donnell was Donald Trump’s pick to be Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency and was confirmed to that role in January of 2020. In April of that year Trump appointed O’Donnell acting IG of the Department of Defense, on top of his EPA role. DoD IG was vacant due to Trump’s highly controversial firing of the well-regarded Glenn Fine, who had been the DoD IG since early 2016. As a result, O’Donnell has held two full-time jobs as the top watchdog for both massive agencies since April of 2020 – a job which is “functionally impossible.”
Perhaps the massive overstretching of O’Donnell’s capacity to manage oversight of the DoD enabled the accountability vortex which saw the DoD, joining its Secret Service colleagues, destroy crucial evidence and communications from senior leadership. CNN reported that top Pentagon officials scrubbed their phones of all evidence relating to January 6th, and indeed all records in their entirety, in the final days of the Trump administration. Unlike its DHS counterpart, the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office claims to have had no knowledge or awareness of this destruction. Nonetheless, the reality remains that such egregious records violations should not have been missed by the department’s oversight office in the first place and that this information should not have taken almost a year and half to become public knowledge.
The DoD’s OIG needs a permanent leader, and one that is fully committed to upholding the highest standards of transparency, accountability, and public service within our federal government. Unfortunately, President Biden’s nominee – Robert Storch – to this agency does not live up to this standard.
Storch is currently the Inspector General of the National Security Agency, a position he’s held since December of 2017. To be fair, Storch’s nomination did predate the Trump administration, but when Trump withdrew no less than four IG nominees upon his inauguration, Storch was the only one to subsequently be re-nominated by the Trump Administration. One has to wonder what he said to inspire such faith and commitment from the Trump administration. Given Trump’s notorious loyalty tests and Storch’s apparent satisfaction of them, Storch should have no place in the oversight leadership of Biden’s Pentagon or the federal government writ large.
Biden should both remove O’Donnell from the impossible structure of his joint oversight position, and withdraw his nomination of Robert Storch to replace him. Instead, Biden should appoint an OIG with a robust oversight record, a commitment to non-partisan accountability, and an unimpeachable commitment to the public. Storch is not that person.
Chris Wray at the FBI
As we have said many times, and will assuredly say many more, Biden should also finally remove Chris Wray from his position as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). And no, the fact that he did not undermine a court order to search Mar-a-Lago does nothing material to change our assessment of his fitness for office.
Wray was selected by Donald Trump to head the FBI – following his firing of Director James Comey – precisely because of Wray’s presumed loyalty to Trump and his platform. During his tenure at the bureau, Wray apparently satisfied these high fealty expectations while dedicating the FBI’s immense resources towards investigating the alleged domestic terror threat of left-wing political mobilizations like “black identity extremists” and “animal rights extremists” who his department labled as the greatest domestic terror threats facing the country.
While Wray funnelled taxpayer dollars into hyper-surveilling and attempting to criminalize Black Lives Matter leadership and abortion activists, white supremacists and the rest of the far right have been empowered to grow without any real scrutiny or dedication of investigative resources by Bureau infrastructure. Wray failed to take seriously the quite public indications that the right was set to attempt a coup on January 6th, and it was his apathy that effectively allowed seditionists to run free through the Capitol halls. Of course, Wray also told Congress that the FBI simply does not have the mandate nor the resources to monitor and track social media in attempting to justify how January 6th caught the bureau unawares, but records show that the FBI did find the time and resources to do just that when it came to criminalizing the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020.
In yet another gross abrogation of responsibility, transparency, and governance, Wray also allowed Donald Trump to direct the FBI’s treatment of and investigation into the rape allegations against Brett Kavanaugh during his SCOTUS nomination. These directions led to the FBI lending the issue only an extremely marginal investigation that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s lawyers called a “sham and a major institutional failure.”
In short, Wray “lie[s] like [he] breathe[s],” and there is no place for him in Biden’s government. He can and should be removed from his position, and the toxic legacies of his leadership should be sought out, scrutinized, and scrubbed from the federal government.
Now Is Biden’s Time To Act
Donald Trump has been out of the White House for more than a year and a half, but officials he installed continue to dictate policy, insulate bad actors from scrutiny, and otherwise degrade the pillars of our democracy. Biden has every right to remove dozens of these characters from their positions of power, but he must finally choose to. We cannot wait until the next constitutional crisis – and the apparent flurry of destroyed evidence that accompanied the last one – to begin acting on the dangers these figures pose to the public.
Image credit: “Detail of the Homeland Security Flag” by Bill Koplitz is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.