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April 9, 2020

Note From Elie: A New Low in the Distracted-Nation News Dump

Dear Reader,

Whenever prosecutors — or any public officials — have good news, they typically are strategic about when to announce it.  Sure, law enforcement officials like to put on a humble “just doing the job, don’t care about publicity” veneer. But I readily admit that throughout my career as a prosecutor, I regularly discussed when to do a takedown and when to hold the attendant press conference to maximize attention.  Any prosecutor who denies this is full of it. 

Fridays are out — unthinkable to bury good news on the week’s slowest news day, with the day-after coverage falling on a weekend.  (And don’t even suggest a weekend announcement, unless you’re trying to be funny). Less obvious but also on the “no go” list: Mondays, with the media mildly distracted by leftover weekend stories, and not yet fully geared up for the week ahead. 

Time of day matters too.  Can’t hold a presser at 9 a.m., that’s too early and won’t leave enough time for the cameras to arrive and set up.  Noon or 1 p.m. don’t work either — lunchtime, and you’ll miss mid-day local news coverage. And anything at 4 p.m. or later will miss the 5 and 6 p.m. feeds. 

Sure, things are more fluid now in the age of social media, but these general rules still hold.  Whenever you see a press conference by a prosecutor delivering good news, note how often it happens on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m.  Mark my words. 

Of course, there’s a flip side: the off-hours news dump.  When it’s time to announce bad news, wait until the spotlight cools.  Weekends are the least noticeable, but so obvious that they perversely call more attention to the purposeful effort to mute the issue.  So bad news often comes out on Friday at, say, 6:15 p.m., when public attention is minimal.

And if there’s some even bigger story out there pulling focus, all the better to bury the bad news — the off-hours news dump compounded by distraction.  Anytime some massive news story hits, somebody inevitably would make the dark half-joke that it’d be a good day to release our pending bad news. 

President Donald Trump took the distracted-nation news dump to a new low when he fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson last Friday (news broke after 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time; I was already asleep, though I don’t live much of a party lifestyle).  He did it right as the entire country is rightly fixated on the exploding Coronavirus crisis. And as this week progressed, Trump continued to make moves behind the all-consuming public focus on Coronavirus, following up his firing of Atkinson by replacing a string of Inspectors General across the federal government.

Think of it: Trump has taken advantage of an unprecedented national health emergency to sneak by some of the slimiest machinations of his, or any, presidency.  The Administration tipped its hand by its timing. The Atkinson firing in particular was an ugly, vindictive, sneaky move — and they knew it. That’s why they tried so hard to bury it when it would go least noticed.

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The firing of Atkinson is repugnant to basic good-government principles.  To review: Atkinson was appointed IG by (checking notes…) President Donald J. Trump himself.  In total, Atkinson served in government for 17 years, across administrations of both parties.

Atkinson’s sin, it seems, is that he followed the law.  When he received a whistleblower complaint in August 2019 about Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of the Bidens, he found it both credible and urgent.  Accordingly, pursuant to an unambiguous federal law, Atkinson tried to send the complaint to Congress.  But the Director of National Intelligence — backstopped by a flimsy opinion from Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department — tried to block it.  Atkinson made a savvy counter-move: he notified Congress that his efforts to submit the complaint had been blocked, effectively sounding the alarm on the Administration’s obstructionism. 

Here’s the simple math: if Atkinson did not do his job under the law, neither Congress nor the public would have learned about Trump’s effort to shake down Ukraine, and Trump likely would never have been impeached.  Given that reality, it has always been a question of when, not if, Trump would go after Atkinson. 

Indeed, the very day after his Senate impeachment trial ended in acquittal, Trump gleefully kicked off his 2020 Impeachment Retribution Tour.  In a surreal scene that was part Festivus Airing of Grievances, part Comedy Central roast, and part drunken post-World Series locker-room celebration, Trump went on tilt, right in the East Room of the White House

Heads started rolling soon after.  Trump tossed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — a war hero who testified about Trump’s abuse of power — out of a White House job.  And just to drive home that it was all about payback, Trump also booted Vindman’s twin brother, who had nothing whatsoever to do with impeachment.  (I prosecuted mafia cases; even the mob doesn’t go after family members). Trump also recalled Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who testified that there was a quid pro quo and that “everyone was in the loop.”  

It was only a matter of time (and timing) for Atkinson.  At first, the Administration tried to soft-play the reasons for Atkinson’s firing, citing Trump’s loss of the “fullest confidence” in him.  But Trump himself promptly declared his true purpose: “He [Atkinson] took a fake report and he brought it to Congress with an emergency, OK?  Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.”

We certainly have bigger problems right now than the unceremonious firing of one player in Trump’s impeachment (which now feels like it happened in a different era, but somehow ended only about two months ago).  But the message sent by the firing of Atkinson and replacement of the other IGs firmly applies to the Coronavirus crisis, and our government’s response to it: Do your job in a way that hurts Trump — whatever science dictates, or the law says, or your job description requires — and you too could pay the price. 

I have faith this tactic won’t succeed.  Most of the people working in the Administration to fight the Coronavirus are courageous, dedicated professionals who would never betray science or the law to appease a petty tyrant.  But even on an issue that should be about hard science and data, there is room for politics to interfere — see the recent feud between Anthony Fauci (who is, of course, a medical doctor) and Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro (who is decidedly not) over the medical efficacy of certain treatments unapproved for Coronavirus. 

The Atkinson firing pointedly reminds anyone who doesn’t toe the Trump line on the Coronavirus, or anything else, that payback could come at any time.  Maybe not now, maybe not as soon as this is over, but someday. And you might even get kneecapped late on a Friday night, when public attention is on some other big issue, and hardly anyone will even take notice when you fall. 

Stay informed and stay safe, 


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