Alarm bells should be going off everywhere.
We learned last week that Trump reportedly plans to install up to seven inspectors general as part of a wider “purge” within the federal government. And during a recent covid-19 briefing, Trump questioned the independence and neutrality of the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general concerning an investigation touching upon whether hospitals have adequate testing and supplies to protect their staffs and to treat patients. The report’s findings apparently did not align with the White House’s messaging.
In early April, Trump fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, in retaliation for following the law — specifically his involvement in the whistleblower complaint that led to the president’s impeachment. Two of us (Bakaj and Zaid) represented the intelligence community whistleblower, and the third (Tye) raised funds to provide legal and security services for that person, so we have a profound understanding of Atkinson’s competence and independence in that matter.
Next, the president removed Glenn Fine as acting inspector general of the Defense Department, thereby requiring him to step down as chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a position for which he was selected by his peers.
It is time for Congress to intervene. Eight senators sent a bipartisan letter last week requesting that the president “provide more detailed reasoning for the removal of Inspector General Atkinson.” It is a start, but it’s not enough.
If Trump proceeds as he should, he will nominate replacements for those he removed. These nominees will require confirmation by the Senate, as part of the chamber’s constitutional duty to advise and consent. These nominees will be presidential appointees — not “political” appointees — thus requiring Senate confirmation.
The Senate must fulfill its role to enforce the 1978 Inspector General Act and ensure that those appointed to these positions are chosen “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability” to fulfill the role of a statutory inspector general. Senators must also ensure that the president does not rely solely on “acting” officials. As leverage, Congress can use the constitutionally significant power it holds: the power of the purse. If there’s one thing to which Trump responds, it is money — or lack thereof. Cuts in presidential pet projects would get his attention and could be used to force the president to the table to cut a “deal” that protects these institutions crucial to our republican form of government.
Many Americans are no doubt unaware what an inspector general does, but it is significant. Inspectors general oversee audits, inspections and investigations of the government agencies in which they reside. They ensure that resources are being used properly and uncover fraud against the government — i.e., when individuals or government contractors abscond with money. In fact, by uncovering and eliminating fraud, an inspector general is arguably one of the few statutory entities that returns money to federal coffers.
Fine’s removal is of notable concern. Much like Atkinson, he has established himself as independent and competent — and his ouster makes clear that Trump will act against anyone who is an independent thinker, particularly when that person contradicts something Trump has said or crosses a perceived line against his personal interests. Moreover, Fine has a track record of supporting whistleblowers. In 2016, he substantiated allegations that Rear Adm. Brian Losey, who headed Naval Special Warfare Command, committed unlawful retaliation against Navy SEALs. This determination ultimately forced Losey into retirement.
With American lives on the line as we shelter in place during this pandemic, our government must be working for us. If there is one thing the government should be doing, it is protecting us — be that against foreign adversaries, natural disasters or public health crises. Inspectors general play a critical role in ensuring resources are not wasted at a time when their availability is scarce and people are dying.
Inspectors general must remain independent watchdogs, rather than lapdogs for the president. Congress cannot fail us now.