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Trump’s Purge of Inspectors General Deepens His Ability to Corrupt the Government

April 9, 2020
Trump’s Purge of Inspectors General Deepens His Ability to Corrupt the Government
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine testifies before the House Judiciary Committee. (Photo by Melissa Golden/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is going after federal inspectors general. On Monday, the president removed Glenn Fine from his role as acting inspector general. Fine had been selected to lead the newly created Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the designated watchdog to oversee the allocation of the $2 trillion dollars in coronavirus relief funding. By firing Fine, Trump eliminated another barrier to corruption.

Trump’s failure to corrupt the executive branch all the way down to the level of inspectors general was a large factor in the lead up to his impeachment. Six months ago, I wrote as much:

Over the last two weeks, two federal inspectors general—the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) and the State Department Inspector General (DOS-OIG)—have stepped forward to expose presidential misconduct that has put Trump on a fast track to impeachment.

And so it did.

Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) Michael Atkinson overcame a frantic White House and DOJ effort to silence him and ultimately succeeded in bringing to the attention of Congress a whistleblower’s credible and urgent allegation that Trump had conditioned aid to Ukraine on an announcement of an investigation into his likely opponent in the 2020 presidential election. Atkinson’s brave action ultimately led in a straight line to Trump’s impeachment.

But the bigger story was always that Trump would likely learn from this incident and take his corruption of the executive branch to a whole new level:

If he wasn’t paying attention to inspectors general during his first years in office, he is now. Look for him to start replacing them, claiming that he’s draining the swamp.

And if Trump remains in office—and especially if he’s re-elected in 2020—he’ll have not only the incentive, but also the time to finish the job.

And so he has.

ICIG Atkinson was the first casualty of Trump’s recent purge of the federal inspectors general.

Atkinson’s crime, of course, was doing his job. Upon determining that the Ukraine whistleblower’s report was both credible and urgent, Atkinson was required by law to provide it to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) who, in turn, was required to transmit it to the congressional intelligence committees. The language of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act is mandatory, not discretionary: the DNI “shall within 7 calendar days of such receipt forward such transmittal to the congressional intelligence committees” of Congress. “Shall” means shall.

Atkinson did exactly what the law required him to do. He provided the whistleblower’s report to acting DNI, Joseph Maguire. Although Maguire initially contorted himself into a pretzel in an attempt to avoid doing his part, eventually the whistleblower’s report was provided to Congress thus leading to the impeachment proceedings late last year.

Trump has only gotten bolder in his attempts to thwart accountability. His attempt to push through a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill without any accountability for how that money would be spent was met by Senate Democrats successfully insisting that there be some monitoring of how the government would be handing out the billions of dollars of aid authorized by the bill – rather than just leaving it to the highly suspect discretion of Donald Trump and Steve Mnuchin.

Trump attempted to eviscerate the oversight required by the aid bill by issuing a “signing statement” that said he would not permit the new inspector general to issue certain reports to Congress “without presidential supervision.” But apparently that wasn’t enough self-protection for Trump.

By firing Fine, and replacing him with Sean O’Donnell, the EPA’s inspector general, Trump killed two birds with one stone.

First, he removed non-Trumper Fine, a government watchdog known for independence, from a sensitive position that could hold him accountable for any self-serving manipulation of the enormous pot of money Congress had created. Second, he created a vacancy in the EPA inspector general position that he can later fill with a loyalist who can be counted upon to advance his agenda of weakening environmental regulations.

And the purge of inspectors general is just beginning.

Axios reports that sources close to Trump “expect him to fire more inspectors general across his government …” Trump appears to have embraced the view of some of his political allies that the inspectors general are part of the “deep state” that is trying to undermine him. Put differently, Trump appears to have learned that corrupting the highest levels of government by surrounding himself with people whose primary qualification is personal loyalty, isn’t enough. He has to dig deeper into the executive branch if he wants to avoid accountability.

The next inspector general to be purged might be HHS IG Christi Grimm. On Monday, Trump attacked Grimm, tweeting that she spent 8 years with the Obama administration, suggesting that she might have some responsibility for the “Swine Flu debacle where 17,000 died,” and accusing her of submitting “Another Fake Dossier!”

Grimm had just issued a report detailing a history of severe shortages of testing supplies, extended waits for results, widespread shortages of PPE, difficulty maintaining adequate staffing and hospital capacity, shortages of critical supplies and logistic support, anticipated shortages of ventilators, and “changing and sometimes inconsistent guidance” from the federal government.

Grimm’s report, which only confirmed what everybody has known for weeks, didn’t fit with Trump’s preferred narrative that he was doing a great job in managing the crisis. Her firing will not come as a surprise and can’t be far off.

In the long run, Trump’s purge of inspectors general will turn out to be far more damaging to our government than his mostly one-off revenge-firings of individuals who provided truthful testimony against him in the impeachment process.

Inspectors general play a unique watchdog role to prevent misconduct, waste, fraud and other abuse within agencies of the federal government. Congress enacted the Inspector General Act of 1978 precisely to make sure that agencies within the executive branch are held accountable from within by an independent, non-partisan organization. And it works – or at least it has so far. Witness, for example, the role of the ICIG in shining light on activities that led to Trump’s impeachment.

But there’s a massive loophole in the Act, and Trump is driving a Mack truck through it: cabinet-level IG’s, including those within the intelligence community and the State Department, are appointed by the president.

Now that Trump has finally tumbled upon how much damage independent IG’s can do to him, he’s correcting (without admitting, of course) his earlier mistake of failing to drive his corruption deep enough to reach the watchdogs.

From now on, he’ll make sure that he appoints foxes to guard the henhouses.

And his second term, if he gets one, will make the first look like a golden age.

Philip Rotner

Philip Rotner is a columnist whose articles appear in national publications and on his website, Philip is an attorney who has practiced for over 40 years, both in private practice and as the general counsel of a global professional services firm.  Philip’s views are his own, and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.