In the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to fire the Defense Department’s Acting Inspector General (IG) Glenn Fine, just days after Fine was tasked with overseeing the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), several legal experts expressed outrage over the president’s ongoing efforts to upend independent oversight and accountability.
Fine was on track to supervise federal agencies’ $2.2 trillion economic stimulus spending. Fine had been specifically selected for the role by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Horowitz issued a rare rebuke of the president in a lengthy statement defending former Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who Trump fired last week.
Trump continued his attack on the IG community during Tuesday’s coronavirus press briefing, baselessly claiming he replaced the acting inspector general due to nebulous “reports of bias.”
“Well, we have IGs in from the Obama era – and as you know, it’s a presidential decision. And I left them, largely. I may change some, but I left them. But when we have, you know, reports of bias and when we have different things coming in — I don’t know Fine. I don’t think I ever met Fine. I’ve heard the name,” Trump said when asked about removing Fine. “I don’t know where he is. Maybe he was from Clinton. Okay? You have to check that out? Okay, maybe he’s from Clinton. But we did change him, but we changed a number,” the president said, before stating that he had already begun removing seven current inspectors general from their positions.
“We have about seven nominations in. I believe we put seven very, very highly qualified people for the IG position. And, you know, that’s a decision that I could have made three years ago and I could have made two years ago. But we’re putting in — not so much for him. We’re putting in seven names. I think it was seven. And they’re going in now.”
On Tuesday, Trump also went after HHS Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm for her report on “Hospital Experiences Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” He called the report a “fake dossier.”
As previously reported by Law&Crime, Trump on Monday sent five inspectors general nominees to the Senate for approval. Permanent replacements for Fine and Atkinson would bring that number to seven. For now, acting IG of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sean W. O’Donnell will replace Fine, and general counsel to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Thomas Monheim will replace Atkinson.
That may or may not be what Susan Crabtree of RealClearPolitics meant when she tweeted that Trump planned to fire “7 IGs in one fell swoop.”
That tweet had lawyers sounding the alarm about Trump’s mass reshuffling of the independent oversight deck. The administration has openly looked to install and officials based on their loyalty to Trump.
National security attorneys Mark Zaid and Andrew Bakaj, both of whom were on the legal team that represented the Ukraine whistleblower, issued dire warnings.
Atkinson received their client’s complaint about the July 25, 2019 Trump-Volodymyr Zelensky phone call and determined it was credible and urgent–meaning the complaint should be disclosed to Congress. Impeachment soon followed, but so did acquittal, and Trump didn’t forget. Last Friday, Trump sent Atkinson packing, citing a loss of confidence.
“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,” Atkinson shot back on Sunday night.
Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub said Trump’s mission to destroy two centuries of safeguards was nearly complete.
“A last line of defense in this war on ethics and law is the Inspector General community. They’re the eyes of the American people, objective investigators traditionally freed to pursue accountability by the safeguard of bipartisan congressional protection,” Shaub commented.
“What began with the fall of the ethics program is entering the end game with the potential fall of the Inspector General community. The government is failing us, safeguards that took two centuries to build have crumbled, and fascism is eyeing this republic like lunch.”
Shaub worked as director of the OGE during Barack Obama’s presidency and resigned from his post in July 2017, as NPR noted at the time, due to “clashes with the White House over issues such as President Trump’s refusal to divest his businesses and the administration’s delay in disclosing ethics waivers for appointees.”
Georgetown University Law professor and former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council Joshua Geltzer called Trump’s conduct “VERY dangerous to American democracy.”
Several others, such as University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck and former federal prosecutor Christopher Alberto, said Congress should provide some kind of oversight or require an explanation for such a purge of IGs.
[image via Fox News screengrab]
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