Trump's IG Purges Add Fuel to Oversight Controversies

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For many of President Trump’s closest advisers and allies, the housecleaning is years overdue, while critics are aghast that he’s choosing to act in the middle of a pandemic.

Even as Trump and many high-profile members of his team are laser-focused on fighting the COVID-19 crisis, the White House is following through with a months-long plan to replace several administration inspectors general, part of the cadre of internal agency watchdogs who are supposed to serve as the first line of defense against government malfeasance and corruption.

During Tuesday’s daily coronavirus task force briefing, Trump implied that he no longer had faith in their oversight capabilities and he was in the process of replacing several of them.

“We have a lot IGs from the Obama era. … I left them largely” in place, he said. The president then openly complained about “reports of bias” surrounding some of their actions and acknowledged that he had moved to replace seven of them.

“We’re putting in seven names, I think it was seven, and they’re going in now,” he said.

Despite these watchdogs’ good-government mantra, many of Trump’s closest advisers and allies believe several inspectors general -- some serving in acting roles and first appointed during previous administrations -- have become a thorn in the side of his presidency, working to undermine his agenda and sabotage some political appointees’ efforts to carry it out.

The purge began last Friday when Trump ousted Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson and critics’ consternation erupted this week when they began realizing the moves’ full impact. Over the last week, Trump has made no secret about his distrust of the watchdogs, especially those  appointed by Presidents Obama, George W. Bush or Clinton.

“We have a lot of IGs in from the Obama era. And, as you know, it’s a presidential decision,” Trump told reporters Monday, referring to presidents’ ability to remove the watchdogs and nominate new ones.

His beef with Atkinson (pictured) has been obvious. Trump has repeatedly blasted him for approving the whistleblower report objecting to his July 2019 telephone call with the president of Ukraine, which eventually launched the impeachment process.

Speculation that the president would fire Atkinson, one of his own appointees, has swirled since last fall when Trump began lashing out publicly, suggesting that Atkinson conspired with Democrats to green-light the whistleblower’s account.

Trump also has expressed distrust of FBI IG Michael Horowitz, accusing him in a mid-December tweet of overlooking agency bias in his final report on the way the FBI investigated alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia. Horowitz, who was appointed by Obama, remains in his post, although key Trump advisers would like to see him removed, knowledgeable sources tell RealClearPolitics.

Internal administration complaints about other top inspectors general are less clear. Trump has allowed several of them to remain in acting roles during his presidency.

Trump recently named a replacement for Glenn Fine, the acting Defense Department inspector general, but had not publicly taken issue with his tenure. Sources tell RCP that a driving force behind the Trump camp’s frustration with Fine is a longstanding impasse into a whistleblower reprisal case against defense analyst Adam Lovinger, an ousted member of Trump’s National Security Council who has become a cause celebre among some of the president’s closest allies and advisers. Lovinger was removed from the NSC three years ago and stripped of his security clearance in the process; Fine has been investigating his complaint for two years and has yet to wrap up the case and issue a final report.

The inspector general purge also comes amid new developments in another controversial case involving threats to a different Trump appointee’s security clearance. The inspector general for the U.S. Agency for International Development several weeks ago reopened an investigation into the removal of Mark Moyar, a Trump appointee who reported allegations of rampant government waste, fraud and abuse at the agency and then had his security clearance threatened and was forced to resign.

The USAID inspector general is not among those Trump has so far publicly moved to replace, although her name has circulated on a recent list of top IGs who should be replaced, sources close to the administration tell RCP.

On Friday, Trump named replacements for Fine as well as acting inspectors general at the CIA, the Education Department and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned corporation created during the Great Depression to provide electricity and economic development to an impoverished area spanning several Southern states.

It’s unclear what other administration watchdogs Trump was referring to when he mentioned “seven names,” but sources believe that group includes Atkinson and Fine, and possibly the newly created IG position for pandemic recovery oversight at the Treasury Department. Fine was set to become the chairman of a separate new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee aimed at policing how the government spends the $2.2 trillion in the coronavirus relief bill.

The watchdog purge has sparked a fiercely partisan backlash in Washington and renewed criticism from opponents that Trump is too concerned with loyalty tests and trying to fight what he and his supporters often refer to as the “deep state” — holdover appointees from the Obama administration, as well as career officials, who generally disagree with his policy priorities and have worked to undermine them.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer decried Fine’s removal as “corrupt” and accused Trump of “abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight.”

In response to the IG moves, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy pledged to write a measure that would give inspectors general “protected” seven-year terms. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a longtime champion of whistleblower protections and government accountability, is reportedly working on a bipartisan letter seeking an explanation for Atkinson’s firing. The Iowa Republican’s office has declined to comment on the letter but released a statement reiterating his support for strong inspectors general and their duty to provide “nonpartisan recommendations and [to] remove politics from the inner workings of our federal government.”

He also appeared to endorse President Trump’s move to replace acting IGs with full-fledged Senate-confirmed watchdogs.

“President Trump must prioritize filling inspector general vacancies with permanent nominees so this important congressional oversight function can occur,” Grassley said.

The latest round of criticism fails to mention several problems and accusations involving inspectors general during the previous administration. President Obama never systematically purged the watchdogs who were supposed to be providing oversight of different agencies. Instead, several of them were accused of being too closely aligned with the top agency officials they were policing.

The IG system was so broken during Obama’s tenure that several top agency watchdogs were removed after congressional investigations into and accusations about their own malfeasance, including top watchdogs at the Department of Homeland Security and another at USAID.

In the most egregious case, Obama left a top inspector general position at the State Department vacant during Hillary Clinton’s entire tenure as secretary of state – including when she was sending emails using a private server.

Stan Brand, a longtime Democratic ethics attorney, at the time said the problems with the IG process far exceeded the numerous vacancies Obama let linger for years. “There's too much layering — it's a structural problem,” he said. “[IGs] often respond to or are sensitive to the [department] secretary's office in a way that outside, independent investigators wouldn't be. … Congress needs to sort it out because it's a mess.” 

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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