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Grassley: White House 'failed to address' if there was a 'good reason' for IG firings

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Grassley: Voters should be skeptical of Biden's pledge to not raise middle class taxes GOP to Trump: Focus on policy MORE (R-Iowa) said Tuesday that the White House "failed to address" if President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE had a "good reason" to fire top watchdogs for the State Department and the intelligence community.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone responded on Tuesday to two letters from Grassley on the firings of Inspectors General (IG) Steve Linick and Michael Atkinson, saying that Trump "acted within his constitutional and statutory authority." 

But Grassley, who has long spearheaded inspector general legislation, said Congress has "made it clear" that if an IG is going to be fired "there ought to be a good reason." 

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"The White House Counsel’s response failed to address this requirement, which Congress clearly stated in statute and accompanying reports. I don’t dispute the president’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general," Grassley said.

Grassley added that without stating a good reason, "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." 

Trump sent shockwaves through Washington earlier this year when he announced he was firing Atkinson, who last year handled the whistleblower complaint at the center of the House impeachment inquiry as part of his job as the intelligence community's top watchdog.

Atkinson's firing sparked a letter from Grassley and seven other senators pushing for Trump to give a more detailed reason for the decision. 

Grassley sent a separate letter to the administration this month over Linick's firing. Trump has said he fired Linick because Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEntire Nigerian police force mobilized after days of violent protests that have killed at least 69 Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware MORE asked him to — an explanation Cipollone reiterated in his letter this week.

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"As the Secretary of State has said publicly about his Department's inspector general, the President exercised this authority at the Secretary's recommendation," he wrote to Grassley. 

Republicans have demanded a fuller explanation for Linick's firing amid reports that he was investigating whether Pompeo used staff to carry out personal errands, though none have endorsed legislation to make it harder to fire an IG. Pompeo has said he was unaware of the investigation. 

And Grassley has publicly broken with Trump over government watchdogs in recent months.

He sent Trump a letter in April urging him to walk back a signing statement from a mammoth coronavirus package passed in March, warning that he was "concerned" it could "negatively impact the ability of IGs to independently communicate with Congress."

"Read broadly, this interpretation could be cited as authority to unduly strip IGs of their fundamental ability to timely report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct in government programs to Congress. Such authority is vital to their role in securing government transparency and efficiency, and is a critical role that all IGs routinely perform," Grassley wrote at the time.

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Trump raised concerns in the signing statement about a provision requiring the inspector general for pandemic recovery to inform Congress if another department makes an unreasonable refusal to hand over information.

"I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required," Trump wrote, referring to the special inspector general for pandemic recovery. 

Grassley also told The Hill earlier this month, and reiterated in his statement on Tuesday, that he is working on legislation to block political appointees from within a department from being named as acting inspectors general. 

Grassley said the letter from Cipollone did not address the "glaring conflict of interest" putting a political appointee in the position would create.   

"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.