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'Rejecting all oversight': is Trump purging government watchdogs?

President recently ousted two inspectors general, including one tasked with leading oversight of coronavirus relief law

Michael Atkinson leaves a secure area in the Capitol after a day of questions about a whistleblower complaint in October 2019.

Michael Atkinson leaves a secure area in the Capitol after a day of questions about a whistleblower complaint in October 2019.
Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Donald Trump’s abrupt ousting of two veteran watchdogs has prompted fears the scandal-prone US president is purging people from government who have oversight of fraud, waste and abuse.

The moves also come at a time when a global pandemic and resulting mass unemployment crisis has prompted a multitrillion-dollar economic rescue effort, much of which is aimed at helping some of America’s largest companies.

Ex-watchdogs – dubbed inspectors general – plus top Democrats have voiced alarm at Trump’s removal last week of an acting IG at the Pentagon slated to lead a new oversight panel for the $2.2tn coronavirus relief law. The move came just days after Trump axed the intelligence community IG who had alerted Congress to a whistleblower complaint precipitating Trump’s impeachment.

Trump also drew fire for tapping a White House lawyer involved in fighting impeachment as a special IG to oversee a $500bn corporate bailout piece of the $2.2tn law. Days before, Trump had used the signing statement for the law to blunt two newly created IG posts, suggesting he would decide what information Congress receives about the aid package.

Trump’s sudden oustings of the two well-respected watchdogs, Michael Atkinson, the IG for the intelligence community, and Glenn Fine, the acting IG for the Pentagon, sparked special concerns given their timing and apparent political motivations.

Trump’s ousting of Fine, who was recently picked by his fellow IGs to run a critical oversight panel for the $2.2tn law, is seen as a broad slap at any oversight on the president and his administration since it rendered Fine ineligible to lead the watchdog panel.

Trump’s motives in firing Atkinson prompted other worries. After initially saying he had simply lost confidence in Atkinson, Trump used a pandemic press briefing the next day to unleash an angry torrent at Atkinson’s handling of the whistleblower complaint, slamming him as not “a big Trump fan”.

Trump’s antipathy to IG watchdogs was displayed again at a pandemic briefing last week when he was asked about a report by the health and human services IG revealing that hospitals faced “widespread” shortages of face masks, and “severe” test shortages.

Providing no evidence, Trump dismissed the report as “just wrong”, and the next day labeled it “another fake dossier”.

At a recent press briefing Trump unleashed an angry torrent at Atkinson’s handling of the whistleblower complaint.

At a recent press briefing Trump unleashed an angry torrent at Atkinson’s handling of the whistleblower complaint. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

IGs were created in 1978 to ferret out executive agency waste, fraud and abuse. Presidents nominate them, but they require Senate approval.

“The mandate for IGs is to serve as the public eyes and ears regarding the functioning of the executive branch,” said Michael Bromwich, a prominent ex-IG at the justice department. “That means they must be independent, and they are required to be so by law. Trump doesn’t understand any legal mandate that conflicts with personal loyalty. He believes everybody in the executive branch should be loyal to him personally.”

For instance, Atkinson’s firing reveals Trump’s penchant to “retaliate against people he perceives to be his enemies whose duties require them to do things that are contrary to Trump’s political interests”, Bromwich said.

Likewise, Fine “is simply too independent and has too much integrity to be trusted to minimize or sweep under the rug problems with the $2tn package recently passed by Congress”.

Other ex-IGs say Trump’s actions pose a danger to all IG watchdogs and the vital role they perform in curbing corruption

“Trump’s actions are clearly a threat to all IGs,” said Cynthia Schnader, a former acting IG at the justice department. In just a few days, “he has fired one, moved another one aside, and publicly attacked a third one for accurately reporting problems.”

The former Pentagon IG Eleanor Hill stressed that Trump’s moves seem to endanger the mandate of IGs “to be honest and independent brokers”, and alert Congress to serious problems.

Significantly, the current justice IG, Michael Horowitz, who leads a group of executive branch IGs, quickly came to Atkinson’s defense, issuing a strong statement of support for his “integrity and professionalism” – including his handling of the whistleblower complaint that helped spark Trump’s impeachment which featured one count of obstruction of Congress. Horowitz has also vowed that “aggressive, independent oversight” would continue after the firing.

Former officials say Trump mistreated Atkinson.

“It is troubling to see that the president – apparently based on political grievances – has removed Michael Atkinson, a talented and capable inspector general who was doing exactly what his job requires,” said Mary McCord, a former chief of the DoJ’s national security section where Atkinson once worked.

Atkinson himself concurred.

“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 said in a statement on Sunday.

Other criticism of Trump erupted when he selected the White House lawyer Brian Miller as a special IG for a $500bn business chunk of the $2.2tn law.

“Someone who currently works in the White House counsel’s office, serving a president who has tried to silence other inspector generals and announced his intention to silence this one, is not independent,” Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate finance panel, said in a statement.

In Bromwich’s eyes, Trump “has rejected all forms of oversight by congressional committees, and has now turned his opposition to oversight to the IG community”.


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