Senators had raised concerns about the abrupt dismissal of Michael Atkinson, who had served as the intelligence community inspector general and had alerted Congress to a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival — a chain of events that led to Trump’s impeachment and eventual acquittal in the Senate. Grassley also demanded an explanation for the ouster of Steve Linick, the inspector general for the State Department who had started to investigate alleged misconduct on the part of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In both cases, senators made clear that under the law, lost confidence was not enough of an explanation by the president to Congress for why he had dismissed the inspectors general, who are technically presidential appointees but whose independence has long been respected by both parties.
But Cipollone appeared to give no further explanation for the dismissals in his response to Grassley beyond stating that Trump had lost confidence in them, and that, in the case of Linick, he was following Pompeo’s recommendation to terminate his tenure.
“President Trump expects that inspectors general, like all other executive officers, will fulfill their proper role as defined by Congress and ultimately as constrained by the Constitution,” Cipollone wrote to Grassley. “When the President loses confidence in an inspector general, he will exercise his constitutional right and duty to remove that officer — as did President Reagan when he removed inspectors general upon taking office and as did President Obama when he was in office.”
In a statement, Grassley made clear that he was displeased with the response from the White House, saying that it “failed” to meet the legal requirement of telling Congress the specific reasons for an inspector general’s dismissal.
“If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is,” Grassley said. “Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.”
In a private conversation last week, Cipollone had told Grassley that he would send over responses to his letters on Atkinson’s and Linick’s removal by Tuesday. It is unclear what else Grassley may do in response to the White House’s letter.
In 2009, after President Barack Obama dismissed the acting inspector general that oversaw, in part, the AmeriCorps program, Grassley and then-Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) launched a full investigation into the firing of Gerald Walpin.
Cipollone wrote in his response to Grassley that Trump was within his constitutional rights to dismiss the inspectors general — which the senator does not dispute — and that the president had properly notified Congress in advance of the date when the watchdog would be let go.
“In so doing, President Trump’s actions were similar to President Obama’s actions in his removal of an inspector general,” Cipollone wrote in the letter to Grassley.
The White House lawyer also praised the qualifications of the acting watchdogs who are temporarily taking their place and urged the speedy confirmation of Trump’s permanent picks to the open inspectors general slots.
Grassley also took issue with the administration’s decision to place political appointees from the agencies in the acting inspector general positions. He said Cipollone’s letter did “not address this glaring conflict of interest.” The Republican senator, along with Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), is working on legislation that would bar political appointees from serving as acting inspectors general.
“I’ve made clear that acting inspectors general should not be political appointees in order to preserve the independence required of the office, and I’m working with colleagues on legislation to codify this principle,” Grassley said.