Trump’s IG firings prompt questions of whether more are coming
President Trump’s recent shakeup of federal watchdogs has questions swirling over whether more inspectors general across the government may be on the chopping block in the coming days.
In less than a week, Trump fired, removed or publicly berated inspectors general across multiple federal agencies, including the oversight official who was tasked last week with overseeing the massive $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.
Oversight experts and Democrats have protested the president’s inspector general (IG) reorganization, while some of the president’s allies are pushing for further review of current watchdogs.
Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, argued that Trump should be able to have watchdogs who reflect the president’s points of view, while claiming that IGs too often protect bureaucracy rather than fight waste, fraud and abuse.
“Every IG should be on the chopping block,” Fitton told The Hill on Wednesday, adding that it doesn’t matter if they were appointed by past Democratic or Republican administrations.
Still, there appears to be confusion whether plans for additional firings were under consideration or in motion.
Some Republican sources say the administration may have as many as seven watchdogs they were looking to remove and replace. Others said they were not sure if that number just reflected the changes Trump has already made since last week.
Some say Trump has already purged the inspectors general he wanted out of office.
“I don’t think there are any more,” said one intelligence source. “It was done last week. But news may be catching up to what was already done.”
Uncertainty has lingered since Trump’s firing of intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson late Friday, in what was seen as delayed retribution for his handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that sparked the House impeachment inquiry.
Trump the same day nominated new inspectors general for the Department of Education, CIA and Department of Defense. He also nominated someone to fill a new IG position to oversee funds tied to the coronavirus relief legislation.
The president’s decision to replace Glenn Fine, who has served as the acting Pentagon IG for roughly four years, as the coronavirus relief watchdog sparked particular controversy.
Fine had just been named by a group of his peers on the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
Some oversight experts argue that Trump clearly wanted to control the process, noting that he could have nominated a new inspector general and left Fine in the acting role until his successor was confirmed. Trump instead chose to name a new acting official while Congress is out of town.
Trump also separately berated Health and Human Services watchdog Christi Grimm on social media, after a report issued from her office found “severe” shortages of tests for hospitals to use on patients infected with COVID-19 as well as “widespread” shortfalls of protective equipment used to protect health care workers. Trump quickly questioned who made the oversight official’s appointment and called the report “another fake dossier.”
Oversight experts said that while IGs often are thorns in a president’s side, Trump’s actions are far from typical.
“If an IG is doing their job well, they are likely to invoke the ire of a president,” said Danielle Brian, executive director for Project on Government Oversight.
Brian noted that the Inspector General Act of 1978 makes it clear that an IG should be nominated without consideration for their political leanings.
The president and his allies “seem not to understand that an IG is not the same thing as a political ally and that an IG needs to be only loyal to rooting out waste, fraud and abuse; and that should be the caliber of qualities that they should be looking for in that job,” said Brian.
Past presidents have also come under fire for the sudden removals of inspectors general, but usually these actions were taken more toward the beginning of their administrations.
Former President Reagan faced fierce backlash in 1981 after he fired all the watchdogs nominated by his predecessor, former President Carter, a Democrat. Reagan ultimately reversed some of these dismissals in light of the criticism, but the episode increased scrutiny about political interference related to oversight appointments.
Former President Obama sought to replace AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin in 2009, offering the same explanation for firing Walpin that Trump gave for Atkinson: He had lost confidence in the watchdog. Critics, including oversight experts, emphasized at the time that the removal came after Walpin opened an investigation into a prominent Obama supporter, Kevin Johnson, who served as mayor of Sacramento, Calif.
Trump’s recent actions have attracted bipartisan pushback.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) led a bipartisan group of senators in requesting that Trump provide more details on his decision to fire Atkinson, while claiming that the 30-day notification of his intention to remove the watchdog did not meet legal requirements.
“Congressional intent is clear that an expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the statute,” eight senators wrote in a letter to the White House on Wednesday.
“This is in large part because Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to perform the duties of the office, and not for reasons unrelated to their performance, to help preserve [inspector general] independence,” they wrote.
Atkinson has stood by his conclusion that the whistleblower complaint was credible and urgent, a determination that triggered a process for sending the complaint to Congress. Such allegations triggered the investigation that resulted in Trump’s impeachment in the House, and later his acquittal in the Senate — both largely along party lines.
House Democrats have seized on the shake-up, calling it an attempt by Trump to suffocate independent oversight at the moment the country is focused on a pandemic.
“President Trump has been engaged in an assault against independent Inspectors General since last Friday in order to undermine oversight of his chaotic and deficient response to the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who primarily votes with Democrats, has been pushing for Atkinson and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell to testify under oath about the firing.
“Atkinson essentially was fired for doing his job,” King said Wednesday on MSNBC. “This is cutting off the American people’s access to what’s going on within their government. Whistleblowers and IGs are essential part of our checks and balances.”
Even if Trump does not move to replace more IGs, it’s possible his actions will have a deep effect on the government. Experts predict other watchdogs will have Atkinson’s firing seared in their memory as they weigh whether or not to cross the White House.
“The damage that has been done by firing Atkinson is that now all IGs have lost their authority, essentially, to do their job well,” said Brian.
Jonathan Easley contributed.
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