Trump is even gutting the monitors who are providing accountability for the spending programs to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus. His latest move came Tuesday, when he sacked Glenn Fine, the acting Pentagon inspector general who had been chosen by his fellow IGs to lead a panel overseeing the $2 trillion pandemic bailout effort.
Trump’s campaign against accountability has been especially heavy-handed with the intelligence community. That culminated in Friday’s dismissal of Michael Atkinson, a highly regarded government career attorney who since 2018 had served as watchdog of the 17 agencies that report to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Trump’s curt dismissal letter Friday said he lacked “the fullest confidence” in Atkinson. Trump didn’t explain his reasons for firing him, but Atkinson said later that he was ousted as revenge for “having faithfully discharged my legal obligations” in supporting a whistleblower’s charges about Ukraine that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment.
With Atkinson’s dismissal, Trump has replaced every experienced, Senate-confirmed official at the ODNI. Intelligence is now overseen by acting director Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist and former State Department spokesman.
These dizzying changes have startled key members of Congress. Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me Tuesday that “both Republicans and Democrats on the . . . committee are united in our concern about the politicization of intelligence.” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told me he thought Trump was seeking to “chill dissent and neuter any oversight of his conduct.”
The makeover at the ODNI is part of a broader degradation of accountability and oversight mechanisms across government. One little-noted facilitator of this demolition process is the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Once a respected source of legal guidance, the OLC has become a reliably pro-Trump advocate under Attorney General William P. Barr and the OLC chief, Assistant Attorney General Steven A. Engel.
In an OLC opinion in September that astonished many Justice Department veterans, Engel argued that the DNI’s office couldn’t transmit to Congress the Ukraine whistleblower’s compliant. Engel opined that the complaint wasn’t an “urgent concern” as defined by law. Atkinson responded with a blistering letter, and the administration eventually relented.
Engel’s other controversial OLC opinions include a ruling in June that Trump didn’t need to release his tax returns and an opinion in May that White House advisers had “absolute immunity” from testifying in the impeachment inquiry.
An invidious part of Trump’s campaign is his attempt to undermine the inspector general system itself. These officials serve in 73 agencies across the government and are supposed to provide independent, nonpartisan reporting of abuses to Congress and the executive branch. Fourteen IG positions are vacant, including those at the CIA, Defense, Treasury and the Department of Health and Human Services.
On Friday, Trump nominated officials to fill five of these open positions, but many of his nominees have administration political ties. For example, Brian Miller, his choice for a special inspector general post to audit the pandemic recovery program, serves in the White House counsel’s office and helped manage document releases during the impeachment probe. He also formerly served as inspector general at the General Services Administration.
Peter M. Thomson, nominated to be the CIA inspector general, is a former prosecutor who in his recent private practice, among various white-collar defense work, “defends owners, operators and crew members of motor vessels who have been charged with environmental crimes,” according to his firm’s website. He’s a regular contributor to the blog of the conservative Federalist Society.
Perhaps the most shocking attack on oversight was Trump’s denunciation of HHS Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm. A 20-year veteran of her agency’s IG office, Grimm helped prepare a survey of 323 hospitals dealing with the covid-19 pandemic. An April 3 IG statement said the hospitals reported “severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results” and “widespread shortages of personal protective equipment [that] put staff and patients at risk.”
Trump blasted Grimm on Monday and said the 46-state survey of hospitals “could be her opinion.” In a tweet Tuesday, he questioned whether she had audited Obama administration anti-flu efforts and concluded: “Another Fake Dossier!”