Note: this article, featuring our Deputy Director of Legislation and National Security Analyst Irvin McCullough, was originally published here.
Trump Removes Watchdog Who Heads Panel Overseeing Pandemic Stimulus Spending
Glenn Fine had been designated to lead committee charged with identifying abuse in $2 trillion spending law.
President Trump replaced the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, who had been charged with monitoring the roughly $2 trillion pandemic stimulus law, administration officials said, the latest shake-up in a bid by Mr. Trump to exert increased control over personnel across the government.
Mr. Trump’s removal of Glenn Fine, a longtime federal watchdog who has been at the Pentagon since 2015, is the second high-profile ousting of an inspector general in recent days. Last week, the president fired the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who played a key role last year in the run-up to Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
The president and his advisers have long accused officials throughout the sprawling federal government, including some inspectors general, of working against Mr. Trump and his team. “Not a big Trump fan—that, I can tell you,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Atkinson last week.
After a bruising impeachment fight that saw several prominent administration officials provide damaging testimony to Congress, the president’s advisers are eager to install people in key positions who are loyal to Mr. Trump, according to people close to the president.
Earlier this year, Mr. Trump named a trusted aide, John McEntee, as the head of the White House’s personnel office, where he has sought to identify political appointees at government agencies who are thought to be opposed to the president’s agenda, administration officials said.
“Basically, the message that has now been sent very loudly and clearly throughout the United States government, to inspectors general and everybody else, is don’t displease this guy because you’re liable to lose your job. It’s the chilling effect,” Sen. Angus King (I., Maine) said of the president in an interview.
Presidents generally have unilateral authority to remove inspectors general, but they have traditionally avoided doing so because they are seen as independent watchdogs.
With Mr. Fine’s ouster, the Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog, Sean O’Donnell, who was appointed in January, has stepped in as acting inspector general at the Defense Department, officials said.
In replacing Mr. Fine, the president is also making him ineligible to serve as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The committee, which was created under the stimulus law, is charged with identifying waste and abuse as the government implements the provisions of the coronavirus-response package. Mr. Fine was appointed as the head of the committee late last month by his fellow inspectors general.
Mr. Fine, who has been the acting Defense Department inspector general since 2016, had planned on continuing his duties at the Pentagon while chairing the coronavirus oversight committee. Instead, Mr. Trump has returned him to his position as principal deputy inspector general. Only inspectors general or acting inspectors general can chair the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.
Mr. Trump made the decision without announcing the news publicly. The White House declined to comment. The Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General later confirmed the changes.
During a Tuesday evening news conference at the White House, Mr. Trump said it is his prerogative to choose inspectors general, adding that Mr. Fine was nominated by a Democratic president. The president said he doesn’t know Mr. Fine personally and didn’t offer an explanation for his decision.
Mr. Fine served as the Justice Department’s inspector general beginning under President Clinton. His tenure stretched through the Bush administration and into the Obama administration. Mr. Obama later tapped him to serve as the Pentagon’s inspector general.
Mr. O’Donnell, who had no previous inspector-general experience, came to the EPA in January after 15 years as a prosecutor at the Justice Department, focusing on fraud cases. He will continue as the EPA’s acting watchdog as he takes up the Pentagon post.
Last week, Mr. Trump announced his intent to nominate Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser at Customs and Border Protection, to be the Defense Department inspector general. But he will not take office until confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. Trump also said last week he intended to fire Mr. Atkinson, the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community, citing a lack of confidence in the man who deemed credible a whistleblower’s complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, which led to the House’s impeachment of the president. The move was widely condemned by Democrats and whistleblower advocates.
“The message this sends to other watchdogs is clear: you are not safe,” said Irvin McCullough, a national-security analyst at the whistleblower protection group Government Accountability Project, referring to Messrs. Fine and Atkinson. Mr. McCullough said Congress should create a safeguard from political pressure for inspectors general by granting them for-cause removal protections.
Mr. Trump also nominated Brian D. Miller, a White House lawyer, as special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a new position intended to watch over how $500 billion earmarked for loans to business is spent. Democrats criticized the nomination, arguing that Mr. Miller’s ties to the White House could stand in the way of his independence.
The stimulus bill specified that the new-business-loans watchdog notify lawmakers immediately if any agency refuses to comply with its information requests. In a statement released upon the signing of the legislation, Mr. Trump indicated that those inspector general reports must first be reviewed by the White House.
On Monday, Mr. Trump upbraided a government watchdog at the Health and Human Services Department, Christi Grimm, for releasing information on hospital readiness amid the coronavirus outbreak. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump tweeted further criticism, dismissing her report as ‘Another Fake Dossier!’”
Former inspectors general said they could think of little precedent for the kinds of actions Mr. Trump is taking.
Michael Bromwich, who served as the Justice Department’s inspector general during the Clinton administration, said the only comparable example since the government’s inspectors general were established in a 1978 law dated back to the Reagan administration. Mr. Reagan fired all of the existing inspectors general—who had been selected by his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter—when he took office in 1981. Facing sharp criticism, he later rehired about half of them.
More recently, presidents of both parties, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, have ousted inspectors general from federal agencies, citing a variety of reasons, though the moves have been rare. Those removals weren’t usually as high-profile as Mr. Trump’s, but were nonetheless often met with bipartisan concern about whether the decisions were retributive or political.
Government transparency advocates have also pointed to the removal of Navy Capt. Brett Crozier as commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after he sought to protect his crew from a coronavirus outbreak as an example of dissent being punished throughout the Trump administration. Adding to the administration’s turnover, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned his position Tuesday after his decision to excoriate the former captain in an address to the ship prompted a swift backlash.
Mr. Fine was chosen by fellow inspectors general in the federal government—through the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or CIGIE—to head the pandemic oversight committee. CIGIE, which will have to name a new committee chair, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
His ouster as top watchdog at the Defense Department and replacement with a relative novice concerns those familiar with the complexities of Pentagon oversight.
“There’s no reason to do this,” said a person familiar with the operations of the CIGIE. “He’s been at Defense for four years.”
As principal deputy inspector general, Mr. Fine will continue to oversee an investigation related to the massive Pentagon cloud-computing contract, which was awarded to Microsoft Corp., a spokeswoman said.
The inspector general’s office was looking into allegations that one of the bidders, Amazon.com Inc.’s cloud-computing unit, Amazon Web Services, had benefited from conflicts of interest among some Pentagon officials who worked on the deal. Members of Congress had also asked the inspector general to look into Amazon’s allegations that Mr. Trump unduly influenced the contract to steer it away from Amazon.
A report on the various allegations is due this spring.