the national interest

Trump Fires Defense Official for Refusing to Break the Law on His Behalf

Elaine McCusker Photo: Shutterstock

Two days after Senate Republicans acquitted President Trump on both counts of impeachment, the Trump administration fired a number of national-security officials: European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council staffer, for voluntarily testifying before the House, as well as the latter’s twin brother, Lieutenant Colonel Yevgeny Vindman, for being related to Alexander. Now, the “Friday Night Massacre” is extending into this week. The New York Post reports that the administration is retaliating against Elaine McCusker, whose nomination for Pentagon comptroller and chief financial officer has been pulled.

What’s especially chilling about this move is the reason for the retaliation. McCusker is losing her job because she attempted to follow the law. There’s no cover story to rationalize it. That is the cover story. “This administration needs people who are committed to implementing the president’s agenda, specifically on foreign policy, and not trying to thwart it,” a White House official tells the paper.

McCusker’s crime is quite literally having attempted to follow the law. Over the summer, the Office of Management and Budget was trying to hold up aid for Ukraine that Congress had passed into law, because it was trying to extort Ukraine to investigate Trump’s rivals. Defense Department officials, who were supposed to allocate the funds, attempted to implement the policy. Just Security obtained the email chain.

The emails show McCusker advising budget officials as to what the law said. She was not acting especially rigid about it. As Just Security’s summary notes, “The emails show officials bending over backwards to make every conceivable accommodation to keep the process moving without actually being able to obligate the funding.” One message shows McCusker writing to another official, “We need to continue to give the WH has [sic] much decision space as possible, but am concerned we have not officially documented the fact that we can not promise full execution at this point.” That is, she was trying to do everything in her power to give White House officials room to set the policy as they saw fit, without violating the law.

Importantly, the Government Accountability Office later examined the question, and found that McCusker was right. Holding up the aid was indeed illegal. (It’s not complicated: Congress passed a law providing the aid, so refusing to carry it out would obviously violate it.)

The message sent by McCusker’s punishment dovetails not only with the Friday Night Massacre, but other recent moves. The Department of Justice has opened an official process to allow Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, the current target of an investigation, to take and sift through his Russian-financed dirt. (There is no such avenue available for lawyers representing other presidential candidates.) And after Trump floated a pardon for his Russia-scandal accomplice Roger Stone, who is being charged with obstructing an investigation in order to protect Trump, the Justice Department has proposed reducing his sentence.

Trump is making it perfectly clear throughout the federal government. Anybody who stands in his way will be punished, even if they are on the side of the law. And his allies will be protected, even if they violate it.

Trump Fires Defense Official for Refusing to Break the Law