Now Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, jolted by President Trump’s actions against inspectors general, are working to protect the independence of that corps of federal auditors and investigators who probe government spending.
National hotel and restaurant chains claimed millions of dollars in stimulus money before the program ran out of money last week, leaving many small businesses unable to get funding. The Washington Post also reported that to satisfy debts, bill collectors and banks are hijacking payments meant for individuals’ living expenses during a period of shocking unemployment and long lines for free food.
Even without the Trump administration’s rickety rollout, a quickly crafted $2 trillion emergency program would cry out for oversight — but not from a self-interested president. “I’ll be the oversight,” Trump said as the relief package was being negotiated with Congress.
Yet, toward that end, Trump beheaded the program’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee before it could hold anyone accountable by effectively removing the panel’s chairman, Glenn Fine, then the head of the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Under the relief legislation, Monday is the deadline for the committee’s executive director to be appointed by Michael Horowitz, the chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. He also is the Justice Department inspector general.
Horowitz’s office would not say when a new committee head will be appointed. Nothing in the language of the law prevents Horowitz from appointing himself to the post. He would be an experienced, well-regarded candidate.
Trump’s decision to remove Fine as acting defense inspector general, while allowing him to remain as principal deputy, was another administration strike against oversight. Those actions have increased calls by Republicans and Democrats to protect the watchdogs’ independence from Trump’s attacks.
Legislation proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) would provide inspectors general (IGs) seven-year terms and prevent Trump and future presidents from firing them without specific reasons, including “permanent incapacity, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance, or conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”
“This administration is waging a war on oversight. It’s not just the recent firing of inspectors general. It’s also the way in which they haven’t protected whistleblowers,” Murphy said by telephone. “It makes sense to give IGs some protection from the capriciousness of the executive branch.”
Warning against Trump’s attempts “to weaponize independent oversight,” Murphy said that if inspectors general think “they will be fired the minute that they start to get crosswise with the administration, then it will chill the interest of any IG to point out wrongdoing.”
Trump wants “to protect himself politically from these IGs by making them all understand that they really have no political protection if they do their job,” Murphy said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) led the way in writing a bipartisan Senate letter to Trump after he initiated a rare IG firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general.
Performing “by the book,” in the words of Joseph Maguire, then the acting director of national intelligence, Atkinson reported to Congress the whistleblower’s complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment over his attempt to pressure Ukraine for his personal political benefit. Trump saw that as an act of disloyalty, apparently thinking inspectors general should have fealty to him instead of to their responsibilities as federal watchdogs.
The senators’ letter told Trump that the law requires him to inform Congress of the reasons for removing an intelligence IG at least 30 days in advance. Telling Congress that he no longer has “the fullest confidence’’ in Atkinson, they wrote, “without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the statute.”
By naming an acting replacement for Atkinson and putting him on 30 days’ leave, the letter said, “the administration has already effectively removed that IG and appears to have circumvented Congress’s role in this process.”
The senators told Trump to respond to this point and to “provide more detailed reasoning for the removal of Inspector General Atkinson no later than April 13, 2020,” a deadline Trump missed. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the letter or Murphy’s legislation.
In a separate letter supporting IGs from Grassley to Trump on Wednesday, the senator said “even the appearance of political interference in their process cannot be tolerated.”
In the House, 20 Democratic chairmen wrote Horowitz “to express our grave concerns with President Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the independence and integrity of Inspectors General across the government. Unlike any President in modern history, President Trump has engaged in offensive and unjustified attacks against Inspectors General, criticizing them for following the law, and retaliating against them for telling the truth.”
In addition to cases involving Atkinson and Fine, the Democrats, led by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, noted Trump’s verbal attack on Christi Grimm, the Department of Health and Human Services principal deputy inspector general. Earlier this month, she released a report that cited “severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results.” This reality conflicts with Trump’s bogus narrative that “anybody that needs a test can have a test . . . and the tests are all perfect.”
It’s that attitude of presidential infallibility that troubles Murphy.
“I worry if Trump gets away with these attacks on IGs,” he said, “other presidents will do the same.”