During President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, there were warnings that if he were acquitted for abusing his power to induce a foreign country to investigate a political rival, he would be emboldened to continue to put his own interests above the nation’s and resist any meaningful oversight of his administration. Trump’s assault this week on the independence of inspectors general — the watchdogs that monitor waste, fraud and abuse of power in government agencies — confirms those dire prophecies.
There’s always been some tension between presidents and the inspectors general who monitor the executive branch from the inside, demanding accountability and calling public attention to missteps. But while his predecessors may have grumbled, Trump has lashed out, putting IGs on notice that “if you cross the president, your job is at risk,” John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institute, said. “That’s an extraordinary threat to the independence of these offices.”
Last weekend Trump removed Michael Atkinson, the inspector for the intelligence community, who had informed Congress of the existence of an “urgent” whistleblower complaint involving Trump last summer. The complaint exposed Trump’s outrageous attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine, whose country was desperately dependent on U.S. security assistance, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
After removing Atkinson, Trump told reporters: “I thought he did a terrible job, absolutely terrible.” Atkinson gave a more accurate account of his firing, saying that “it is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial inspector general, and from my commitment to continue to do so.”
In removing Atkinson, Trump is pressing on with a purge of officials he seems to blame for his impeachment by the House over his improper approach to Ukraine. But removing Atkinson was more than act of petty vengeance. It also signaled to other inspectors general that Trump has contempt for their watchdog role.
Trump continued to send that message this week. On Monday he publicly berated the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, who had the temerity to issue a report documenting the shortages of COVID-19 tests and protective equipment at hospitals across the country. “It’s just wrong,” Trump said, as if he could simply wave off the interviews the IG had done with hundreds of hospital administrators.
Then, on Tuesday, Trump demoted Glenn A. Fine, the acting inspector of the Defense Department. The move made it impossible for Fine to continue to serve as chair of the pandemic response accountability committee, a group of inspectors general responsible for overseeing implementation of much of the recently enacted $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. This came on the heels of Trump appointing a White House legal adviser, Brian Miller, to be the inspector general overseeing a $500-billion loan program created by the act — a pick that doesn’t inspire confidence in the IG’s independence.
Although not a household name, Fine is widely respected for his integrity and served as the longtime inspector general of the Justice Department. On Tuesday Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee who had hailed Fine’s appointment, said that his removal by Trump was “a direct insult to the American taxpayers — of all political stripes — who want to make sure that their tax dollars are not squandered on wasteful boondoggles, or incompetence or political favors.”
Political pressure on these watchdogs isn’t new. But Trump’s warped notion that the executive branch exists to loyally serve his interests makes it especially important that these watchdogs don’t lose their bite — including when it comes to ensuring that funds appropriated in response to the pandemic are honestly and transparently spent. The importance of the panel Fine was to head shouldn’t be underestimated; a similar oversight body Congress set up in the 2008 Wall Street rescue bill has saved the government more than $10 billion.
The need for accountability on this issue may embolden even some in the GOP to insist on new protections for inspectors general. With the support of enough Republicans, Congress could include in one of the next pandemic relief bills a requirement that inspectors general be removable only for cause. But Trump’s disdain for the role of inspectors general is part of his larger insistence that all departments of government, including the Justice Department, show fealty to him above all. The only certain remedy for that warped attitude is his removal in November’s election.
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