It’s important to understand how we got here. By signing the $2.2 trillion Cares Act, Mr. Trump explicitly accepted an extensively negotiated bipartisan agreement to subject this extraordinary flow of funds to commensurate oversight. The president gets to appoint a special inspector general for $500 billion in resources assigned to the Treasury Department; Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate appoint a congressional oversight commission for both Treasury and the Federal Reserve; and there is the PRAC, composed of inspectors general drawn from all government agencies with wide-ranging powers to supervise all agencies. The government’s highest-ranking inspector general, Michael Horowitz of the Justice Department, chose Mr. Fine, a highly respected former Justice Department inspector general serving as acting IG of the Defense Department, to run the PRAC. Mr. Trump did not technically fire Mr. Fine from the PRAC, but rather replaced him at the Pentagon, which, under the applicable law, disqualified him from the PRAC.
This was not the action of a president concerned with carrying out the commitment to transparency that he had agreed to in negotiating the bill. Nor was the move clearly connected to the finer-grained constitutional concerns about the executive director appointment process Mr. Trump had raised upon signing it. It was, however, consistent with Mr. Trump’s disdain for government watchdogs generally, manifest in recent days through his dismissal of the intelligence community’s IG, in apparent retaliation for supporting the whistleblower in the Ukraine aid scandal, and through his characterization of the Health and Human Services IG’s critical report on pandemic response as a “fake dossier.”
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Trump has something to fear from good-faith independent examination of the agencies under his administration. Another president might consider aggressive oversight of the Cares Act programs as the price of public support for the vast and intrusive expenditures to come. There is an inevitable trade-off between saving the economy, which requires that resources get spent fast, and the need to minimize waste and fraud, which are bound to increase with the pace of spending. The best way to handle this trade-off is to put bureaucrats and business executives on notice that they may be answerable for their conduct at some later date. This is the deterrent function the Cares Act’s oversight provisions were designed to perform, and which Mr. Trump has just undermined.