The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Daily 202: With purges and appointments, Trump leaves a lasting mark on inspector general system

with Daniela Santamarina and Mariana Alfaro

The Senate Intelligence Committee held a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for President Trump’s nominee to be the CIA’s chief watchdog. The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed inspector general since 2015. Trump’s first pick withdrew in 2018 after his nomination stalled amid allegations that he had retaliated against former CIA employees who alerted authorities to alleged misconduct. Trump’s second pick, Peter Thomson, promised to do his work “free of undue or inappropriate influences.” Democratic senators expressed skepticism, but he appears poised to win confirmation from the full Senate in the coming weeks.

In contrast, Senate Republicans refused to confirm any of President Barack Obama’s dozen nominations for inspector general posts during his final year in office. It was not just Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court that they torpedoed in 2016. (Meanwhile, the Senate also confirmed Trump’s 200th judicial nominee on Wednesday.)

In addition to remaking the courts, Trump is aggressively moving during this election year to assert more control over the inspector general system that has been a cornerstone of executive branch accountability in the post-Watergate era. His purges of IGs this spring, mostly on Friday nights, are having a dramatic impact across the government.

Senate Republicans are now racing to confirm as many Trump appointees for inspector general posts as possible before the November election as polls increasingly show that both the president and their majority in the chamber are in jeopardy. Of the Cabinet-level departments that have inspectors general, more than 3 in 4 are now either Trump-confirmed appointees or will be soon, if the GOP-controlled Senate advances his nominations, as expected by congressional insiders in both parties.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden promised last month not to fire any inspectors general if he’s elected. This means that these incoming Trump appointees would get to keep their jobs throughout his tenure if they want to and have the potential to become constant thorns in the side of his administration.

Trump has removed leaders of the largest Cabinet watchdog offices:

Because so many watchdogs have been pushed out or stepped down, their replacements are often working in an acting capacity. Trump prefers to keep personnel in acting capacities for as long as possible because it is easier to get rid of them. “It gives me more flexibility,” he explained last year. Acting inspectors general do not have the same authorities, or stature, as their Senate-confirmed peers.

Almost half of the inspectors general that oversee Cabinet-level agencies right now are there in an acting capacity (47 percent). Just over half of those (55 percent) were appointed by Trump after he removed their predecessors, and the other 45 percent are lower-ranking staffers of the inspector general office, most likely a deputy, who got elevated.

“Government is more effective when inspectors general have the independence to identify problems wherever they find them,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “Every president has a responsibility to nominate individuals to IG vacancies who are best qualified to perform that role on a nonpartisan basis. Firing an IG without citing a specific, performance-related cause undermines the purpose of the office. Likewise, installing an acting IG who holds or has held a non-IG political appointment also undermines the core value of independence. These are lessons learned by presidents of both political parties.”

1. Glenn Fine
Principal deputy inspector general, Department of Defense
Dismissed: April

Trump’s decision to replace Fine as the Pentagon’s acting inspector general meant he was disqualified from overseeing the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which was created by the Cares Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. As head of the committee, his job would have been to investigate possible fraud and waste in the administration’s distribution of relief funds.

2. Christi Grimm
Principal deputy inspector general, Department of Health and Human Services
Dismissed: May

Trump’s announcement of Grimm’s replacement came one month after her office published a survey on hospital preparedness for the pandemic. The report, which Trump criticized, found shortages on testing kits and personal protective equipment at some hospitals as they prepared to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

3. Mitchell Behm
Deputy inspector general, Department of Transportation
Dismissed: May

Democrats said they will investigate Behm’s dismissal, which came amid a probe by his office into Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s dealings with the state of Kentucky and whether she gave that state’s projects preferential treatment. Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is running for reelection.

4. Michael Atkinson
Inspector general, Intelligence Community
Dismissed: April

Last year, Atkinson notified Congress of a credible whistleblower complaint regarding a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, which led to investigations and Trump’s eventual impeachment. Trump’s letter to Congress announcing Atkinson’s removal stated he had lost confidence in Atkinson and had no further reasons for the firing.

5. Steve Linick
Inspector general, State Department
Dismissed: May

Trump’s note to Congress announced he had lost confidence in Linick. Democrats suggested that the administration might have retaliated against Linick because he had opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The process has grown increasingly politicized since the Inspector General Act created this system in 1978. 

The average length of time it takes the Senate to confirm a nominee, regardless of whether there is divided government, is twice as long under Trump as it was under President Ronald Reagan, according to a study from the Partnership's Center for Presidential Transition.

Only four inspectors general who oversee Cabinet-level agencies were confirmed to their jobs before Trump became president. They oversee the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Justice and Commerce. The longest-serving among them is Phyllis Fong, who was confirmed as the USDA’s top watchdog in 2002. 

In a timely reminder of the important oversight work these inspectors do, Fong released a report on Wednesday that documented how Trump’s Agriculture Department failed to evaluate the accuracy of worker safety data it used to make its case for a new hog inspection system that allows plants to run processing lines at unlimited speeds. The report also found that USDA was not transparent about the raw data it used in its worker safety analysis, making it impossible for outside experts to evaluate the agency’s conclusions. “The new system, which was finalized in October, shifts many food-safety tasks from federal inspectors to pork industry employees and reduces the number of USDA inspectors on slaughter lines in some plants by 40 percent,” Kimberly Kindy reports. “Prompted by the Inspector General report, a nonprofit group opposed to the new system said it will ask a judge to set aside the rule that created it.”

The coronavirus

Florida has become a coronavirus hot spot. Covid-19 cases have been on the rise since the state reopened in early May, surpassing 100,000 on June 22. (Video: Robert Ray/The Washington Post)
Coronavirus deaths are lagging behind surging infections, but the numbers may catch up soon. 

“With infections setting a single-day national record Wednesday, health experts are taking little solace from one of the few bright spots in the current resurgence: Deaths are not rising in lockstep with caseloads. But that may be just a matter of time,” Lenny Bernstein, Rachel Weiner and Joel Achenbach report. “In the weeks to come, [Tony Fauci] and others said, the death toll is likely to rise commensurately. Which means Arizona, Texas and Florida, states that reopened early and now are experiencing runaway infection rates, are likely to be burying more dead in July. … The virus has come surging back in recent days, with 38,173 U.S. infections on Wednesday, more than any previous day in the pandemic, including the catastrophic days of April. This time, the increases are mainly in the South and West … 

“California, which shut down early and has taken a slow approach toward reopening, nevertheless reported more than 7,000 new cases Wednesday, easily surpassing its record of 5,019 set Tuesday. Oklahoma … and Florida also hit new single-day highs Wednesday. … Coronavirus hospitalizations have tripled in Houston since Memorial Day … Texas reported 5,551 new cases, the most in a single day, along with 4,389 hospitalizations, up almost 300 from Tuesday’s record high. … Overall, 2.36 million people have been infected in the United States and at least 119,000 have died — by far the largest numbers for any country in the world. Governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut said they will advise travelers arriving from states with wide community spread of the virus to quarantine for 14 days.”

  • Vice President Pence urged Republican senators to focus on the “encouraging signs" during a private lunch. Senators said he attributed the lagging mortality rate to more testing and that younger and healthier people now account for larger shares of those getting tested. (Erica Werner)
  • Trump's embrace of the insensitive term “kung flu" to describe the coronavirus has become a rally cry for his core supporters. Some even yelled it out when the president spoke in Phoenix on Tuesday. (David Nakamura)
A second senior economist is abruptly leaving the White House in the midst of the economic crisis. 

“Tomas J. Philipson, acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, will leave his post by the end of June,” Robert Costa, Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Jeff Stein report. “The announcement comes two days after Kevin Hassett, a senior White House economic official and Philipson’s predecessor as chair of the CEA, announced he would also be stepping down. … The White House Council of Economic Advisers, along with the Treasury Department and Office of Management and Budget, decided not to publish economic projections as part of the White House’s summer budget update. Those numbers were expected to be unflattering."

  • “Another 1.48 million people applied for unemployment for the first time last week, a slight decrease from the week before and the 14th straight week that more than one million people have filed for unemployment,” Eli Rosenberg reports
  • The Trump administration sent coronavirus stimulus payments to almost 1.1 million dead people, totaling nearly $1.4 billion, according to a new GAO report. (Erica Werner)
Trump administration health officials insisted that they’re not “pulling the rug” out from 13 testing sites.

“Brett Giroir, an assistant HHS secretary who is the government’s coronavirus testing coordinator, said seven sites in Texas and six elsewhere were part of an early phase of a federal community testing program for the virus that he called ‘antiquated,’ saying they have been kept open a month longer than planned,” Amy Goldstein reports. “Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said the shift in who runs the sites ‘puts a strain’ on that city’s resources as cases of the virus are rising rapidly there.”

  • A spring break trip to Mexico triggered an outbreak among 60 University of Texas at Austin students, a case that offers a window into how easily the virus can spread among college students – and how it can be contained. Researchers found that contact tracing and testing of close contacts, regardless of symptoms, limited the outbreak in this case, as did a local shelter-in-place order in Austin. (Rachel Weiner)
  • A silver lining: Virus numbers may be starting to plateau in the D.C. region. “The District, Maryland and Virginia reported 36 new covid-related deaths on Wednesday, along with 884 new infections,” Rebecca Tan reports.
Dozens of Secret Service officers and agents were told to self-quarantine after working Trump's Tulsa rally.

“The Secret Service instructed employees who worked the Tulsa event to stay at home for 14 days when they returned from the weekend trip,” Carol Leonnig and Joshua Partlow report. At least two Secret Service employees have tested positive. "On Tuesday, the Secret Service field office in Tulsa arranged for a special testing session at a hospital to determine if local agents had contracted the virus while assisting with the rally. … White House spokesman Judd Deere did not directly answer questions about whether the president regretted the trip or if it increased the exposure risks for the agency, White House staff or himself.”

  • Trump is planning a massive fireworks display at Mount Rushmore on July 3, despite a decade-long ban on pyrotechnics at the iconic spot because of the elevated risk of forest fires. Neither federal nor state officials have imposed social distancing requirements for the gathering. (Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears and Josh Dawsey)
  • Democrats said Joe Biden will forgo big crowds and much of the pomp of a traditional convention when he accepts his party’s nomination in Milwaukee. The party is moving its convention from the city’s basketball arena to a nearby convention hall in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus and establish a contrast with Trump, who plans on throwing a large and raucous event in Florida. (Michael Scherer)
The CDC and drugmakers are producing millions of extra flu vaccine doses amid fears of an unprecedented flu season. 

“Even though flu season doesn’t begin until the fall, major flu vaccine manufacturers say they plan to boost production by about 10 percent, to about 189 million doses, up from 170 million doses last year, to ensure enough doses exist for an anticipated surge in people seeking flu shots,” Lena Sun reports. “The CDC has taken the rare step of buying 7 million doses directly from manufacturers to be distributed to states for adult vaccination … Getting a flu shot does not protect against the coronavirus, but disease experts said reducing episodes of flu could prove pivotal in freeing up space in hospitals and medical offices to deal with covid-19.”

NFL teams may cover seats on their fields with ads in a plot to make up some lost ticket sales revenue.

“The NFL and its franchises are discussing a plan by which rows of seating closest to the field in stadiums this season could be covered and used to display the logos of sponsors and messaging for league and team initiatives,” Mark Maske reports. “The plan could be put into effect if teams are prohibited from having their stadiums filled with fans by state and local restrictions related to the pandemic."

  • You can expect to see Phillie Phanatic, Mr. Met and Bernie Brewer back in the spotlight soon: MLB mascots will be permitted in stadiums. They were tossed out last month because league officials saw them as nonessential. Then fans complained. (AP)
  • Major League Soccer will return July 8 with a tournament in greater Orlando, becoming the first U.S. men’s team sport to return from the shutdowns. (Steven Goff
As if we didn't already have enough to worry about…

An unusually thick, nearly 5,000-mile-long Saharan dust plume is sweeping toward the Gulf Coast. Because the dust has trekked so far, only the finest, most lightweight particulates have remained airborne as the mass nears North America. But some of the dust may make it close to the ground, presenting health risks if it is inhaled. (Andrew Freedman and Matthew Cappucci)

The Trump presidency

Former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer claimed on June 24 that Attorney General William P. Barr helped President Trump and hurt the Justice Department. (Video: Reuters)
Bill Barr faces few consequences for eroding the Justice Department’s independence. 

“Since February, Barr has intervened in two criminal cases to the benefit of those who once advised Trump,” Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian report. “Democrats and legal observers have decried the moves — calling on Barr to resign or be investigated by his agency’s internal watchdog — and morale inside the Justice Department has plummeted, according to several Justice Department employees ... But lawmakers, who already held Barr in contempt last year for defying congressional subpoenas, seem to have little in the way of practical recourse. Republicans, who control the Senate, would short-circuit any bid to impeach and remove Barr. … [House] Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called Barr ‘the president’s fixer.’ … A spokesman for Barr said Wednesday that Barr had agreed to appear before the Judiciary Committee on July 28.”

Quote of the day

I am here because I believe that William Barr poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law and to public trust in it. That is because he does not believe in its core principle that no person is above the law," said Donald Ayer, who preceded Barr as deputy attorney general under George H. W. Bush, during Wednesday's House oversight hearing. (Aaron Blake)

Trump reiterated his plans to slash the U.S. troop presence in Germany, suggesting some will relocate to Poland. 

Despite the mounting blowback from Republicans on Capitol Hill, Trump said he will forge ahead with his plans to roughly halve the U.S. troop presence in Germany to 25,000. He claims this is because Berlin does not spend enough on defense, but it also appears to be personal: He has lashed out at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and he made the announcement after she refused to visit Washington for a Group of Seven summit this month. But Trump was chummy on Wednesday with Polish President Andrzej Duda, the first foreign leader to visit the U.S. during the pandemic, at a Rose Garden news conference. Duda has tried to convince Trump to put U.S. troops in his country by offering to name a military installation in the country “Fort Trump.” He said having American troops in Europe is an important check on the Russians. “It is an important security guarantee for us," Duda said in Polish. (Anne Gearan)

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was indicted on war crimes charges, including nearly 100 murders, a special prosecutor in The Hague announced, just three days before he was due at the White House for a special summit with Serbia. Thaci, who had already left Kosovo for the U.S., planned to turn around and return home. (Michael Birnbaum)

The White House extended farm bailouts to cover the lobster industry.

The industry has suffered mightily as a consequence of Trump's trade wars, especially with China, per Jeff Stein and Rachel Siegel. Maine awards its electoral votes by congressional district, and Trump became the first Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988 to win one of them in 2016. He's eager to do so again, and the administration has faced pressure to help rescue struggling GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who is in a tight reelection race. Meanwhile, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), at the White House’s behest, is holding up a bipartisan bill (which he co-sponsored!) that is meant to punish China for undermining Hong Kong’s independence, per Politico.

Divided America

The Trump administration is deploying troops and marshals to protect monuments.

On the orders of Barr, the attorney general, U.S. marshals have been told they should prepare to help protect national monuments across the country through the July 4 holiday, as Trump vows stern punishment for those who vandalize or destroy such structures as part of protests, Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report. The Marshals Incident Management Team will start a joint operations center in Springfield, Va., to coordinate, and every deputy in the Special Operations Group will be made available to help as soon as today. Internal correspondence indicates officials fear that mobs will try to vandalize monuments over the July 4 holiday. Protesters attempted to topple a statue of President Andrew Jackson in a park outside the White House on Monday night, but police in riot gear stopped them. 

The U.S. Army activated about 400 unarmed members of the D.C. National Guard to “prevent any defacing or destruction” of monuments in the capital. “Interior Secretary David Bernhardt requested the Guardsmen to bolster the National Park Police,” Alex Horton reports. “The Guardsmen were posted at an armory awaiting directions for when and where they will be used. … The troops may carry face shields for personal protection but did not have tear gas or pepper spray as of Wednesday afternoon … A Park Police spokesman declined to say where the agency needed support, saying the demonstrators posed a threat and that revealing potential areas would endanger officers. ‘We’re dealing with extremists,’ Sgt. Eduardo Delgado said.”

  • Nine people were arrested in D.C. during skirmishes with authorities across from the White House. Officials said the demonstrators ignited fireworks, set fires and threw projectiles including rocks and molotov cocktails. Officers responded with sting balls and pepper spray. (Julie Zauzmer and Peter Hermann)
  • D.C. Council Member Charles Allen (D) proposed cutting $15 million from the city's police budget and forcing Police Chief Peter Newsham to undergo a council review next year to keep his job. (Fenit Nirappil and Hermann)
Tucson's police chief offered to resign.

“Chris Magnus, the police chief in Tucson, offered to resign Wednesday after releasing video footage showing police officers restraining Carlos Ingram-Lopez, a young man who died in their custody earlier this year. The footage was made public more than two months after Tucson police officers responded to a call about Ingram-Lopez, a 27-year-old Hispanic man, and wound up restraining him facedown. The three officers resigned last week, before the department’s internal probe had concluded,” Mark Berman reports.

  • Three North Carolina officers were fired after they accidentally recorded conversations in which they threatened to kill black residents and used racial slurs. “We are just going to go out and start slaughtering them f------ n------,” one of the officers, Michael “Kevin” Piner, told his colleagues Jesse Moore II and James “Brian” Gilmore. In the recording, which was released by their police department, the men also derided peaceful protesters. (Tim Elfrink)
  • Senate Democrats blocked the GOP policing bill from getting cloture to come up on the floor, stalling efforts to change law enforcement practices. They were angry about being excluded from negotiations over the measure and what they saw as the Republican refusal to negotiate in good faith. This probably means no big reform bill passes before the election. (Seung Min Kim)
  • A Georgia prosecutor said the three white men charged in the death of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery have been indicted by a grand jury on murder charges. If convicted, the defendants would face a minimum of life in prison and could face the death penalty. (Griff Witte and Michael Brice-Saddler)
  • “Nooses have been reported in places as varied as the Sonoma Raceway in California and a construction site in Portland, Ore.,” Miranda Green, Derek Hawkins and Scott Wilson report.
  • Rhode Island, formally known as the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, will drop the latter half of its name on state documents as a result of an executive order signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo (D). (NYT)
  • The University of Cincinnati will take Marge Schott’s name off its baseball stadium. The majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds from 1984 to 1999 has acknowledged using numerous racial and homophobic slurs and owning Nazi memorabilia. She once said Adolf Hitler “was good in the beginning, but he went too far.” (Matt Bonesteel)
  • HBO Max restored “Gone With the Wind,” adding a disclaimer saying the film “denies the horrors of slavery” and two additional videos that discuss the movie’s historical context. (Variety)
Republicans on Capitol Hill are freaking out about Trump's plummeting poll numbers. 

 “A number of top Republicans [said] that Trump needs to change course quickly – even as they readily acknowledge he has never been prone to take such advice," CNN reports. “‘He's good with the base,’ Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said Wednesday. ‘But all of the people who are going to decide in November are the people in the middle, and I think they want the President at a time like this ... to strike a more empathetic tone.’”

  • Biden has opened double-digit leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to fresh New York Times-Siena College polling. He’s also leading the president by six points in Florida, seven points in Arizona and four points in North Carolina.
  • A Marquette University Law School poll shows Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Wisconsin, up from 3 points in March and May. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
  • A Quinnipiac University poll finds Trump and Biden neck and neck in Ohio, 46 percent to 45 percent. The president carried the state by 8 points in 2016. Trump fares best on who is better for the economy (53-43), while Biden does best on race relations (54-38). On responding to the coronavirus, Biden has a slimmer lead (50-45).
  • Trump is angry about his defeat in a North Carolina House primary, where the candidate he endorsed to replace White House chief of staff Mark Meadows lost to a 24-year-old. It was Meadows’s wife, Debbie, who persuaded Trump to endorse the losing candidate, Axios reports.
The likely primary upsets by black and gay candidates reveal a resurgence of the left. 

Progressives have pivoted from defeat in the Democratic presidential primary to a focus on down-ballot races, David Weigel and Paul Kane report. “In safe blue seats, and in places where the party has tended to nominate moderates, a coalition of white liberals and nonwhite voters is transferring energy from the past month’s protest movements into challenges of the party’s establishment … While these Democrats replacing Democrats will not be shifting the balance of power in the House, they represent a massive generational change that could pose a challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and disrupt the more tradition-supporting Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.”

  • A Kentucky woman was allowed to vote in Tuesday’s primary after convincing the state’s board of elections that her dogs ate her absentee ballot. Really. She came with evidence: a ballot covered in bite marks, drool and dirt. (AP)

Social media speed read

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) wore a face shield during a news conference that included the motto of his state, which translates to: “While I breathe, I hope."

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also encouraged his followers to wear masks:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), up for reelection, compared the current situation to the French Revolution:

Videos of the day

Stephen Colbert warned that the November election is not going to be a sprint but a marathon: 

And Seth Meyers thinks Trump is doubling down on racist statements as a reelection strategy: