It has become a hallmark of the Trump era: the shameful end to a distinguished career.
In just two months, Trump has:
- Fired the inspector general at the State Department who was looking into possible improprieties by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
- Replaced the acting inspector general at the Transportation Department who was investigating allegations of favoritism by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao benefiting her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
- Dismissed the inspector general of the intelligence community who forwarded to Congress the whistleblower complaint that kicked off impeachment, while firing or punishing others who participated in the inquiry.
- Ousted the inspector general of pandemic relief spending and replaced him with a loyalist from the White House legal staff who developed the White House strategy of denying information to Congress during the impeachment probe.
- Replaced the acting inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services after publicly blasting her report documenting critical shortages of protective equipment at hospitals.
But don’t worry. Chuck Grassley has written a letter!
In fact, he has written two. And they contain stern phrases about how the administration “appears to have circumvented Congress’s role” and its “obvious conflicts that unduly threaten the statutorily required independence of inspectors general.”
Trump predictably ignored Grassley, then finally had the White House counsel respond Tuesday by telling Grassley to pound sand. Grassley noted that the response did not offer a “good reason” for Trump’s actions and said “the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame.”
But Trump can safely stiff Grassley because he knows the senator won’t back up his words. He’ll support fig-leaf legislation (blocking political appointees from serving as acting IGs) that won’t prevent Trump from firing inspectors who hold him to account.
Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, could stop Trump in his tracks by blocking his nominees or threatening to discontinue his investigation, at Trump’s behest, into the Bidens.
But few Republicans can withstand the public abuse that comes with defying Trump, and Grassley says he might run for reelection in 2022, when he’ll be 89. In a moment that demands courage, Grassley so far is choosing political self-interest.
“I truly was fooled by Grassley into thinking he cared about this stuff,” Walter Shaub, who resigned as head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics after clashing with Trump, told me Wednesday. “He would have ended his career as a true defender of inspectors general and now he’s going to end his career being complicit in the greatest purge of inspectors general of all time.” And now the White House counsel is “sticking his thumb in Grassley’s eye.”
It’s hard to believe this is the same man who, when President Barack Obama fired the inspector general of AmeriCorps (Obama’s highest-profile IG dismissal and the one most comparable to Trump’s) railed against the White House even after it gave an exhaustive justification, and led a months-long investigation.
Now Trump is coercing acting inspectors to refrain from investigating his administration, dismissing them if they do. The Project on Government Oversight counts 15 inspector-general vacancies, which are filled by acting officials. When the Department of Homeland Security’s acting IG issued reports critical of the administration, Trump replaced her with an inspector who scaled back the office’s audits and reports by about 75 percent.
Worse, Trump’s choices for the IG positions at Transportation and State are senior managers in those departments who would continue in their previous roles — allowing them to police themselves, with the power to learn the identity of whistleblowers.
The attempt to skirt accountability goes further. The administration demoted Rick Bright, who had led the government’s vaccine research, when he raised concerns about the pandemic response. Trump forced out two national intelligence directors in an effort to find a more pliant one and he ousted an FBI director and an attorney general because they didn’t block probes of his advisers. The White House attacked one of the president’s own ethics appointees for recommending Kellyanne Conway’s dismissal for violating the Hatch Act.
During impeachment, Republicans upheld the White House refusal to provide documents and testimony to Congress, and the Supreme Court has delayed a decision on Congress’s demands for information from the administration until after the election.
This leaves the fate of government accountability to Grassley. He says the White House has “failed” to meet the IG statute’s requirements, and he protests the “glaring conflict of interest” that could make watchdogs “agency lapdogs.”
Good words. But they mean nothing if Grassley won’t risk political heat to protect his 40-year legacy.
Watch Opinion videos:
Danielle Brian: It’s past time for Congress to give inspectors general and whistleblowers additional protection
Andrew Bakaj, John Tye and Mark Zaid: Trump’s purge of inspectors general is a crisis. Alarm bells should be going off everywhere.