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The Week In Politics: Pandemic Planning

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A new and stunning move overnight by President Trump - he announced there would be a new inspector general at the State Department. He gave no cause for the removal of the veteran who was in that job. This would be notable under any circumstance, but it is just the latest in a series of watchdogs and other government officials who've been forced out in the Trump administration. NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: I don't know how to begin except to say, what's going on here?

ELVING: Well, the president is asserting control, exercising the full extent of his powers over the executive branch, including people whose job is to keep an eye on other officials, one of whom was Steve Linick, the inspector general at State who was fired late last night. Members of Congress are telling us this morning that Linick had opened an investigation of Secretary Mike Pompeo, close ally of the president, over the alleged use of department staff. But we have seen the president fire the watchdog in other departments as well. As you say, last month, it was Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community IG who processed the whistleblower complaint last year, became an issue in the president's impeachment, Christi Grimm at Health and Human Services, who had criticized the coronavirus response. And the president also removed Glenn Fine, who was supposed to oversee some of that $2 trillion that Congress approved to spend in dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

SIMON: And we note, as we must this week, the U.S. death toll from that virus approached 90,000 people this week. Some states and cities are moving to reopen businesses this weekend. While the esteemed British medical journal Lancet criticized the Trump administration for essentially sidelining the Centers for Disease Control in giving vital information to the public, the White House has challenged a number of CDC recommendations. This is a worldwide pandemic, a national crisis. Who is informing and leading non-public health decisions in the United States now?

ELVING: There are many voices, Scott. Certainly, the president's is the loudest. He has the extraordinary power to command media attention and dominate the conversation. But actual authority, that's a tougher question. The Centers for Disease Control, as you say, is struggling to do its job but has had its recommendations resisted by the White House.

The governors are struggling to do their job, and some are maintaining a strong stand for social distancing, but others have given into demands for opening up. And they've done this with the encouragement, even the urging, of the president who has said he sees himself as a cheerleader for the country and says the governors are going too slowly.

SIMON: Let me ask you about this week's testimony by Dr. Richard Bright on Capitol Hill. Of course, he formerly ran the agency that was leading the search for a vaccine. What did he say? How was he received?

ELVING: He told a House committee this week there was simply no coherent plan for reopening the country in a responsible way, we lack the adequate testing and contact and safety measures that he says we need and that there would not be a vaccine very soon. Most experts think it's going to take another year to 18 months. And without a vaccine and without those safety measures and the adequate testing he was calling for, he said it could bring on the darkest winter in modern history.

Now, reactions in the committee were divided along party lines. The president, of course, this week called Bright a disgruntled employee. But as we noted earlier, this administration is producing a record number of disgruntled employees.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.