Under cover of a pandemic, President Trump is fighting against independent oversight. If he is successful, he may permanently weaken the ability of inspectors general to conduct independent oversight of the Executive Branch.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump has actively sought to weaken oversight and accountability, both from Congress and within the executive branch.
In addition to openly flouting congressional oversight requests, Trump has left 12 inspector general positions vacant across the federal government, leaving agencies with acting IGs that have not been confirmed by the Senate, and who are more vulnerable to political pressure from the White House, because the president can more easily appoint and remove them.
Just recently, Trump has dramatically escalated his war on oversight, setting his sights on IGs who have withstood his bullying.
Late Friday night, the president informed Congress that he had fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, claiming that Atkinson had lost the president’s full confidence.
Atkinson released a statement in which he wrote, “It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my faithfully having discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General,” referring to his role alerting Congress to the whistleblower complaint that sparked impeachment proceedings last year. We agree.
Department of Justice IG Michael Horowitz, who is also the chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), praised Atkinson’s integrity and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint.
Horowitz also promised that federal inspectors general will continue to conduct rigorous, independent oversight of the agencies they oversee, including the CIGIE’s Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
Congress created the committee to conduct oversight of the more than $2 trillion to be spent in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and Horowitz appointed acting Department of Defense Inspector General Glenn Fine to lead the new committee.
Now, in an apparent response to Horowitz’s promise that his IG’s will not bow to the president’s threats, Trump has removed Fine as acting DoD IG (also removing him as head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee).
Trump’s removal of Fine also comes as DoD is embroiled in a controversy surrounding the acting Navy secretary, Thomas Modly, who resigned after his comments about Capt. Brett Crozier, the former captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, sparked outrage.
Modly was widely criticized for firing Crozier after Crozier sent a letter detailing the Navy’s failures in responding to the spread of coronavirus aboard the aircraft carrier, which became public. Several members of Congress have called on the DoD Inspector General to launch an investigation into Crozier’s firing, making Trump’s removal of Fine all the more conspicuous.
Beyond these firings, the president has continued to use his press briefings to publicly lambaste inspectors general. He referred to Atkinson as a “disgrace to IGs,” and responded to a damning Health and Human Services IG report on the coronavirus response by accusing the IG’s office of political motives.
Trump’s message to remaining inspectors general and new appointees is clear: fall in line with the White House, or lose your job. He has let other federal officials know that corruption and abuse of power will not only be tolerated, but supported, and any IG attempting to conduct independent oversight will be publicly undermined and removed from office.
Following Atkinson’s firing, several congressional leaders objected to Trump’s attack on inspectors general, but as a co-equal branch of our government, Congress can and should do more. For starters, it can hold a public (virtual) hearing to get to the bottom of both firings, as Senator Angus King (I-Maine), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has suggested.
It can also vote to censure the president if the hearings provide no legal ground for the firings, and can adopt stronger protections against retaliatory dismissals.
Trump’s actions clearly show he wants to permanently impair the office of inspector general across government. Congress must not allow this unbridled attack on oversight to continue unchecked.