As the American public remains gripped by the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Donald Trump has stepped up a series of audacious moves against a pillar of government oversight, the inspectors general of the United States government, which serve as independent watchdogs to root out abuse of power, fraud and other bad behavior by federal officials.
The President’s moves to push out and belittle the inspectors, made as Washington prepares to shovel out the door trillions of dollars in aid to Americans and businesses, have raised concerns Trump is trying to place loyalists in key oversight positions and dismantle the post-Watergate reforms designed to prevent executive overreach.
On Tuesday, Trump removed acting Inspector General of the Department of Defense Glenn Fine from leading oversight of the roughly $2 trillion pandemic stimulus law just eight days after he was appointed, demoting the career prosecutor to be the No. 2 overseeing the Pentagon watchdog. Trump then made his own appointments. In Fine’s place, Trump named acting Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Sean O’Donnell to oversee the massive spending package. The President also tapped a senior policy official at Customs and Border Protection, Jason Abend, to be the new inspector general at the Pentagon and supervise Fine.
Last week, Trump also fired the chief watchdog of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who passed to Congress the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president that led to Trump’s impeachment. When asked about that inspector general’s removal on April 4, Trump described Atkinson as “not a big Trump fan.”
Trump has also attacked the work of the top inspector general of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, writing in a Tweet on Tuesday that a report Grimm published about nationwide shortages of COVID-19 testing supplies and medical protective gear in hospitals was “Another Fake Dossier!” Grimm’s report was based on phone interviews with 323 hospitals across 46 states in late March.
Taken together, the moves are a striking projection of power against the network of watchdogs that have rooted out some of the most infamous examples of bad behavior by federal officials over the last four decades. From Jack Abramoff’s favor trading inside the executive branch and monumental waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, to the allegations of mishandling of classified information by Hillary Clinton on her personal email server and improper investigative moves against Trump campaign officials at the FBI, independent inspector generals have taken on some of the mosts powerful figures in American government and held them to account.
After Watergate exposed how Richard Nixon used the federal government to serve his personal political aims, Congress created a network of inspectors general to monitor federal agencies and bring to light abuse of power, waste and fraud. Inspectors general were designed to act independently of the President and other political appointees, says Ken Hughes, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Trump “has just demonstrated his lack of respect” for the inspectors general law, Hughes says. “They’re intended to maintain the government’s integrity and to keep it from becoming a critical tool for incumbents of either party to bolster their power and secure their positions,” he says. This is the “worst possible time” to undermine the watchdogs, says Hughes. “With these multi-trillion dollar relief packages that Congress has passed and probably will continue to pass, the opportunities for fraud and abuse are just going to proliferate,” he says.
Earlier this week, in another move that raised concerns Trump was seeking to place allies in key oversight positions, Trump named a White House lawyer, Brian Miller, to oversee the $500 billion business assistance fund in the Congressional relief package.
“The Inspector General providing oversight of the federal response of this historic relief package for workers and families must be independent from politics,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in response to Trump nominating Miller for Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery. “The President’s nomination of one of his own lawyers clearly fails that test.”
Trump’s abrupt removal of Fine and Atkinson has also drawn sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the Administration needed to provide “more details” as to why Atkinson was fired. “Inspectors general play a critical role in protecting against fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct, and their work helps ensure the government efficiently serves the people,” Grassley said in an April 4 statement. “They help drain the swamp, so any removal demands an explanation.”
Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trump’s decision to replace the two high-profile inspectors general is concerning. “The Trump Administration seems to be engaged in a mass-culling of government watchdogs, which is a real threat to independent oversight,” Reed said in a statement. “This appears to be part of an alarming trend by the Trump Administration to remove independent inspector generals and replace them with the president’s loyalists.”