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Trump wages a war on watchdogs as coronavirus elevates their importance

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/8/2020 Liz Goodwin
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: For much of his tenure, President Trump treated government watchdogs with benign neglect, © Doug Mills For much of his tenure, President Trump treated government watchdogs with benign neglect,

WASHINGTON — As federal officials spend money at an unprecedented rate to stem coronavirus damage, President Trump is taking on the watchdogs charged with ensuring government integrity.

Trump’s quiet war on oversight has sent a warning to the inspectors general tasked with ferreting out waste and abuse and raises questions about their ability to quickly and effectively scrutinize the federal government’s response to the pandemic.

In the space of a month, the president fired the intelligence community’s inspector general who protected a whistle-blower, removed a career Pentagon watchdog who was expected to oversee virus relief, and demoted another career inspector general who released a report noting “severe” testing shortages at hospitals. Trump also took the unusual step of tapping several political appointees to become watchdogs, including a White House aide he’s nominated as a coronavirus relief inspector general.

While government watchdogs serve at the pleasure of the president, they are supposed to be independent auditors scouring agencies for abuse and waste.

“It absolutely sends a chill through the whole community,” said Joel Brenner, former inspector general of the National Security Agency. “It’s a very clear message. The president doesn’t want any inspector general issuing any report critical of the administration and any inspector general who does it has to understand that he or she is likely to be out of a job.”

The sheer speed and volume of Trump’s actions over the past month constitute a “warning shot" to the entire inspector general community, argued Donald Sherman, deputy director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington advocacy organization, just as Congress is spending trillions in new money to fight the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Those funds so far have received little oversight, even as media reports have identified problems such as large public corporations accessing loans from a program intended to help small businesses.

“Oversight is more important than ever and I think it’s going to be harder than ever,” said Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight watchdog organization. “Not just the sheer amount of money going out the door but how quickly it’s being spent.”

But Trump has shown annoyance at what little pandemic-related oversight has occurred so far. In early April, he demanded to know the name of the acting Health and Human Services inspector general, Christi Grimm, who surveyed hundreds of hospitals and released a report saying many faced shortages of tests and long wait times for results.

“Where did he come from? What’s his name?" Trump demanded of reporters during a press conference, adding that “politics” could be the reason the inspector general’s report was not positive.

Late last week, Trump nominated an assistant US attorney in Boston without previous inspector general experience to replace Grimm, who’s worked in the office since 1999. The move came less than a month after he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general who handled a whistle-blower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.

The president also attempted to rein in the overlapping and complicated oversight powers woven into the $2 trillion CARES Act. He appended a signing statement to the bill that suggested he could seek to block the coronavirus watchdog’s ability to report to Congress if he is not getting the information he needs from the administration.

Trump later blocked the expected nomination of the Pentagon’s inspector general, Glenn Fine, to head a panel overseeing coronavirus efforts by removing him from his post. That job, which comes with an $80 million budget to comb for fraud and waste in the relief funds, has not yet been filled, further slowing oversight efforts. But the oversight panel has launched a site to begin to track the coronavirus money.

“It’s a tad mind boggling to see the government respond so slowly to oversight in a pandemic,” said Irvin McCullough, an analyst at the Government Accountability Project, a public interest group aimed at supporting whistle-blowers.

The White House also blocked the nation’s lead infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, from testifying at the first congressional oversight hearing on the coronavirus response this week. “The House is a bunch of Trump haters,” Trump told reporters.

Trump has filled one coronavirus-related oversight position, when he nominated White House lawyer Brian Miller to oversee the $500 billion in pandemic recovery funds distributed by the Treasury. Until recently, Miller was a a special assistant to the president and handled some impeachment-related information requests in his role at the White House Counsel’s office.

Democratic senators have suggested the president is attempting to stack the inspectors general offices with loyalists, and pressed Miller at his nomination hearing Tuesday on whether he could be truly independent from Trump.

Miller said he would resign before pulling punches in the role. “You should never be afraid of stating the truth and if you have to be fired you’re fired,” said Miller, who had previous experience as an inspector general before his White House role.

Miller wouldn’t say whether he was involved in Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson or what he thought about that decision.

Government accountability experts say it’s an odd time for a president to focus on inspectors general, when he has less than a year left of his term. For much of his tenure, Trump treated government watchdogs with benign neglect, leaving many vacancies unfilled. Even now, 11 of the government’s 37 inspectors general who require Senate confirmation are “acting,” or not permanently nominated to their posts, which can reduce their authority.

There has been some bipartisan pressure on Trump to fill inspector general vacancies. Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who has made government transparency a signature issue, has pushed him to explain why he fired Atkinson in a letter that said inspectors general should only be fired when there’s “clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to perform the duties of the office.” But so far, no Republicans have signed onto an effort by Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to protect inspectors general from being fired without cause.

Blumenthal said he hopes those watchdog protections are included in the next phase of the CARES Act.

“I’ve heard privately about the chilling effect of his blatant retaliation,” he said. “Oversight should be really noncontroversial.”

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