Trump and Senate Republicans at a showdown over government oversight?

Trump and Senate Republicans at a showdown over government oversight?
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Another day, another act of arson by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE against good government. By now, good government is close to a wasteland. There are a few good institutions left standing. No problem. They’ll be razed in due course.

Parts of the wasteland now include: the intelligence community; law enforcement; Congressional oversight; whistleblowers; medical, scientific, diplomatic and the foreign policy communities. Did I miss one? Trump is currently working on torching inspectors general. He’s just getting warmed up.

So far, his antics are working and will continue to work. There’s no viable resistance. 

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Trump’s latest developing attack against the inspector general community rips at the heart of government oversight. I worked in that community for 10 years, and I know its level of effectiveness and professionalism. IG offices provide much-needed objective assessments, investigations and evaluations of crucial issues that congressional committees are often unable to handle. I worked on Senate oversight committees for 19 years. I am well-steeped in the capabilities of both.

In sniping against the IG community, Trump is attacking Congress’s baby. A direct reaction to the abuses of the Nixon administration during Watergate, the signing of the IG Act of 1978 was witnessed by only one remaining member of the United States Senate — Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Vermont has a chance to show how bipartisanship can tackle systemic racism MORE (D-Vt.). The Act was the law of the land while literally all other present-day senators came into office.

What that means is that IGs have been part of the fabric of good government oversight since the day those other 99 senators took the oath of office. You would think those senators have some skin in the game to protect the institution. All of them, I trust, have called upon IGs to investigate, referee, or provide information either for their committee assignments or, at a minimum, for their constituents. 

I invoke the Senate as an institution, here, because it is the most appropriate bulwark against attacks on government oversight. Senators have a bigger bully pulpit than House members, and they each have the power to put holds on administration nominees until they get what they want. This Senate also has the credibility to take action because they are in the president’s party. The question is, does this Senate want to play hardball, or do they just want to jeer from the sidelines? Will they brave Trump’s political threats and tweets to rescue their own baby? Let’s see if there are any public hints.

For starters, three years of history between Trump and Senate Republicans suggests the Senate will genuflect to Trump. Since Trump’s broadside on the IGs, Senate Republicans such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and others have issued milquetoast statements expressing outrage, concern or being troubled. There’s been no desire yet to actually do something — to crack down on the president for his assault. They simply want the president to respect the next poor sap he picks, if anyone will take the job. 

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There are some measures individual or groups of senators can take to play hardball with Trump on IGs.  In ascending order of toughness: a full-frontal assault in the court of public opinion by numerous senators who oppose Trump’s actions and in defense of good government IGs; putting a hold on nominees or legislation, or both, that the White House desperately wants; passing tough legislation as part of Phase Four of the stimulus. The new IG legislation dropped by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) last week giving IGs a 7-year term with narrow restrictions for dismissal would be a good start; squeezing the White House’s travel budget — such as to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump golf hangouts — could be another.

These are the traditional ways of playing hardball with the White House or other departments who mess around with IGs. A combination of all four by numerous senators would be daunting. In my Senate career, I was instrumental in removing four IGs from office, with at least an equal number of good IGs rescued from Trump-style assaults (though none was as formidable an opponent as a rogue president). As a staffer, I often used such tactics to get my boss’s way.

A starting point for groups of like-minded senators intent on defending the IG community could be the Senate Whistleblower Caucus. Whistleblowers depend on protection from IGs, and Congress depends on IGs to vet whistleblowers. Another group could be individual members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with jealous jurisdiction over the IG Act.

A third group has already surfaced: the eight signatories to the April 8 letter spearheaded by Grassley calling for further explanation from Trump on why he sacked ICIG Michael Atkinson. This is an interesting development. It could be the start of a serious push-back against Trump, or it could be a half-hearted attempt, more for show than for results.

On the bright side, the eight are heavy-hitters, and they’re bipartisan. The three Republicans — Grassley, Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyFrom a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans NRCC poll finds McBath ahead of Handel in Georgia MORE (R-Utah) and Collins — are one Republican short of a potential majority when added to the 47 Democrats. The issue chosen by the eight is the perfect point of departure for a push-back effort — The IG did the right thing at the time, by all accounts; the IG was prematurely removed by Trump; and, the explanation was statutorily insufficient. A simple request for a substantive explanation is a logical place to begin pulling on the thread.

On the other hand, check out Grassley’s tweet and statement last week regarding Trump’s IG removals. He seems to have chosen footsy over hardball. It seems like he’s trying to reason with a ten-year-old to eat his vegetables, suggesting IGs are merely trying to drain the swamp of problems created by President Obama. This is hardly the language of some Braveheart seeking revenge for the president’s assault on his baby.

This development warrants watching to see if Grassley can pull together a coalition to push back against Trump, or if it’s all for show while another institutional norm goes the way of Humpty Dumpty. This may be the last chance at a viable resistance to Trump the arsonist.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.