Democrats Move to Shield Inspectors General After Trump Firings

President Donald Trump speaks during a conference call on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) – House Democrats proposed legislation Friday to bar presidents from removing inspectors general except for good cause, days after President Trump removed two top internal agency watchdogs.

The bill, known as the Inspector General Independence Act, is an amendment to the 1978 Inspector General Act. If passed, it would alter the language of the original law to stipulate that a president can only remove these special auditors if they have proven to be permanently incapacitated, inefficient, neglectful of their duty or malfeasant.

The proposed amendment comes on the heels of a letter issued by more than a dozen congressional committees Friday seeking protections for agency watchdogs following a week of shakeups –  including the firing of Michael Atkinson, an intelligence community inspector general who oversaw the whistleblower complaint that catalyzed Trump’s impeachment, and the removal of the Pentagon’s acting inspector general who was tasked with the oversight of $2.2 trillion in coronavirus relief funds.

Atkinson was fired last Friday without any explanation from the White House beyond Trump’s “lack of confidence” in him.

“President Trump was required to notify Congress 30 days before removing Mr. Atkinson,” the House committee chairpersons wrote in Friday’s letter to Michael Horowitz, head of a council of inspectors general. “There is no credible allegation that Mr. Atkinson failed to perform his duties properly, failed to take any required action or took any action that might bring discredit on his office.”

The removal, the House Democratic leaders argued, was purely for political reasons. 

On Tuesday, the president followed up the Atkinson firing by having Glenn Fine, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, removed from his position as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Fine will return to his post as principal deputy inspector general. Trump has nominated Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to serve as the permanent inspector general for the Defense Department.

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee – formed for the express purpose of overseeing the massive Covid-19 response package, and armed with the power to both subpoena and investigate government officials – drew Trump’s ire immediately after the measure was passed.  

With the ink barely dry on the relief package, Trump said in a signing statement that the deal’s oversight requirements “raise constitutional concerns” that potentially infringe on the executive branch.

“Unlike any president in modern history, President Trump has engaged in offensive and unjustified attacks against inspectors general, criticizing them for following the law, and retaliating against them for telling the truth,” the House Democrats’ letter states.

Lawmakers also pointed to Trump’s treatment of Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general for the Health and Human Services Department, which is currently operating without a full-time internal watch because one has yet to be appointed.

Grimm authored a report that surveyed over 300 hospitals at the end of last month and discovered widespread shortages on vital supplies, incomplete test kits and lackluster testing capability overall. These shortfalls hampered doctors and nurses from treating Covid-19 patients and reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As of midday Friday, more than 17,000 people have died from the respiratory disease in the United States and over 470,000 people have contracted it, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Trump dubbed Grimm’s report a “fake dossier” on Twitter and accused her of being a politically biased Obama administration insider. Grimm has worked for the federal government for two decades, including eight years under former President George W. Bush. She was appointed to her current role by the Trump administration in January.

House Democrats are also looking to Horowitz for guidance around oversight of Trump’s pick to fill the role of special inspector general for pandemic recovery: Brian Miller. The position was created specifically to conduct oversight of the $500 billion loan program for businesses spearheaded by the Department of Treasury. Miller currently serves as a White House attorney and as a special assistant to the president and is a Trump confidante of Trump.

“Mr. Miller publicly criticized the Inspector General of the General Services Administration (GSA) for reporting on a secret meeting between President Trump and the GSA Administrator about the decision not to relocate the FBI Headquarters building across from Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.—a meeting the GSA Administrator concealed from Congress during sworn testimony,” the Democrats’ letter states.

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