President Trump is tightening his grip on federal watchdogs, even as the country reels from the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump has gone on the offensive over the past few days, suddenly removing or publicly berating three inspectors general. Trump’s actions and words have led to criticism from Democrats and others that he is purging officials whose chief responsibility is to protect the integrity of government institutions.

Acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, who just a week ago was charged with overseeing the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, was abruptly removed and replaced this week.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Fine’s removal is the latest example of Trump replacing people who are not “sycophants.”

“What this leads to is basically another epidemic, and that epidemic is incompetence,” Smith told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “What he cares about is people kissing his ass, whether or not the job gets done.”

Trump moved to replace Fine with another federal official — Sean O’Donnell, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general, according to Dwrena Allen, spokeswoman at the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General.

Fine had been selected by peers on the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to chair the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

Separately, Trump this week publicly berated Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general who leads the inspector general’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a press conference Monday and on social media Tuesday, Trump attacked Grimm over a report released by her office that found “severe” shortages of coronavirus tests for hospitals to use and “widespread” shortfalls of protective equipment designed to protect health workers.

Trump pointed to how Grimm — who joined the inspector general’s office in 1999 — had worked under former President Obama.

“Why didn’t the I.G., who spent 8 years with the Obama Administration (Did she Report on the failed H1N1 Swine Flu debacle where 17,000 people died?), want to talk to the Admirals, Generals, V.P. & others in charge, before doing her report,” the president tweeted.

The toll he attributed to the swine flu is more than 4,000 deaths higher than estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He also dubbed the report as “another Fake Dossier,” referring to the compilation of memos by former MI6 spy Christopher Steele that made a series of allegations about Trump’s contacts with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. A federal investigation did not find that Trump or members of his campaign coordinated or conspired with Moscow.

Trump’s attacks on Grimm come as he is facing criticism over the handling of the outbreak, particularly over whether the administration moved quickly enough to prepare for the virus as it spread through China and then across the globe.

As of Tuesday, more than 12,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus and at least 395,000 have contracted the disease, according to a New York Times database.

Trump has also ousted a top intelligence watchdog he’s partially blamed for his impeachment.

Late Friday night, Trump fired intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson, in what was seen as an effort to punish the inspector general for acting on a whistleblower complaint last year that first raised allegations of Trump’s improper contacts with Ukraine. The complaint and subsequent efforts by Trump administration officials to block the allegations from being disclosed to Congress ultimately sparked the House impeachment inquiry.

On Saturday, a day after firing Atkinson, Trump railed at a press conference, calling him a “disgrace” and arguing that he “did a terrible job.”

“He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report — it was fake. It was totally wrong,” Trump said about the readout of his controversial call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress, with an emergency.”

While Trump has repeatedly dismissed the allegations in the complaint and characterized his call with Zelensky as “perfect,” much of the details in the whistleblower complaint were supported by witness testimony and other evidence gathered by House investigators.

The president also indicated over the weekend that he felt there was a lack of loyalty from Atkinson, describing him as “not a big Trump fan.”

Oversight experts and lawmakers both note that it’s not the role of watchdogs to be loyal to the president. They are tasked with rooting out corruption, fraud and abuse.

Atkinson, in a lengthy statement issued to lawmakers and reporters Sunday, expressed disappointment about his firing while encouraging other government workers to speak out over wrongdoing.

“The American people deserve an honest and effective government,” he said, addressing government employees and contractors. “They are counting on you to use authorized channels to bravely speak up — there is no disgrace in doing so.”

Atkinson, who served at the Justice Department for more than a decade before his inspector general role, had been nominated by Trump to serve as his intelligence community inspector general.

Members of both parties voiced disapproval at Atkinson’s removal over the weekend.

“I believe Inspector General Atkinson served the intelligence community and the American people well, and his removal was not warranted,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement over the weekend, while adding that the president acted within his authority.

Republicans, however, have largely remained mum about the developments with Fine, the official Trump removed from overseeing the coronavirus relief package.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a statement avoided criticism of either Trump or Fine. He called on the White House to empower inspectors general, and thanked Fine for his service, adding that the role of the Pentagon watchdog is a difficult one that requires aggressive oversight. 

Democrats said Trump’s actions show he is determined to remove professionals who would hold him accountable.

“The sudden removal and replacement of Acting Inspector General Fine is part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the President against independent overseers fulfilling their statutory and patriotic duties to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement Tuesday.

Some have also criticized Trump for issuing a signing statement on the relief package indicating he would not bow to Democratic efforts to conduct oversight. The statement said his administration had the power to oversee reports to Congress from the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery.

Separately, Trump is pushing forward an ally, Brian Miller, the senior associate counsel in the Office of White House Counsel, to be the new coronavirus inspector general. While some oversight experts praised Miller, Democrats voiced skepticism over Trump nominating a member of his staff for such a role.

“To nominate a member of the president’s own staff is exactly the wrong type of person to choose for this position,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Rebecca Kheel contributed.

Tags Adam Smith Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Donald Trump Nancy Pelosi Susan Collins

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