Inspectors General serve as watchdogs and are the strongest line of defense against government misconduct, wasteful spending, fraud, and other abuses of power.
On Monday, President Donald Trump removed the Inspector General responsible for overseeing $2 trillion in emergency coronavirus spending.
Glenn Fine, who served as acting Inspector General for the Defense Department, had been appointed by a panel of nine other inspectors general to lead the task force charged with monitoring spending from the relief effort. Fine and his colleagues on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee were set to oversee spending in order to prevent “waste, fraud, and abuse” and ensure funds were spent responsibly.
Trump, however, apparently had other ideas and dismissed Fine from his role as IG of the Defense Department. That means he can no longer oversee the coronavirus relief effort, as current law states that only current inspectors general can fill that position. Fine will now return to his role as principal deputy inspector general of the Pentagon.
Trump’s removal of Fine comes just days after he fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who handled the whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment last year as part of the Ukraine scandal.
This week, Trump also criticized Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm after she wrote a report describing the “severe” and “widespread” shortages of medical supplies and equipment facing hospitals as they combat the novel coronavirus. In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump called the report a “fake dossier.”
Trump’s dismissal of inspectors general raises some questions, the first of which is:
What is an Inspector General?
In the U.S. government, an inspector general (IG) is the person within each federal agency that is responsible for auditing the agency’s work to ensure compliance with the law and the agency’s mission. The IG serves as a watchdog and is able to investigate cases of misconduct, wasteful spending, fraud, and other governmental abuses.
Why is their role important?
Inspectors General are the strongest line of defense against government misconduct and corruption. Without strong, impartial, and independent inspectors general, there’s little mechanism to stop federal employees, including the president, from engaging in inefficient or unlawful actions. For example, if the head of the Department of Health and Human Services is accused of committing fraud or embezzling funds, it would fall to that agency’s IG to investigate the matter.
So it’s a big deal that Trump is sidelining them?
Yes, a very big deal. During his term, Trump has repeatedly fired or dismissed civil servants and government officials he deemed not sufficiently loyal, and has now turned that ire on the government’s watchdogs: the inspectors general.
By dismissing IGs who’ve dared do their jobs even if it meant offending the president, Trump is effectively gutting the federal government of its watchdogs. No watchdogs means no oversight, which makes it easier for Trump and his administration to do, well, whatever they want.
But Trump’s actions have not come without rebuke. Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the Justice Department, defended Atkinson’s handling of the Ukraine whistleblower and defended the IG community.
“The Inspector General Community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee,” Horowitz said in a statement after Atkinson’s dismissal. On Sunday, Atkinson also issued a statement accusing Trump of removing him for following whistleblower laws.
“It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General, and from my commitment to continue to do so,” Atkinson said.
He also urged other IGs not to be silenced or intimidated by Trump’s decision to remove him.
“The American people deserve an honest and effective government. They are counting on you to use authorized channels to bravely speak up—there is no disgrace in doing so,” Atkinson said. “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”
What does this mean for the coronavirus oversight task force?
Trump’s move threatens to upend the rigorous oversight that Democrats in Congress had demanded of the huge sums of money being pumped into the American economy because of the virus.
“The president now has engaged in a series of actions designed to neuter any kind of oversight of his actions and that of the administration during a time of national crisis, when trillions of dollars are being allocated to help the American people,” Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California told The Associated Press.
Trump had previously balked at the oversight of the coronavirus law, suggesting in a statement last month that some of the mandates from Congress are unconstitutional.
“This is a major problem,” Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State, told the New York Times on Tuesday. “Trump wants sycophants. This leads to another epidemic: incompetence.”
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed a similar fear. “This appears to be part of an alarming trend by the Trump Administration to remove independent inspector generals and replace them with the president’s loyalists,” Reed told the Times.
The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee still exists and will monitor $2 trillion in spending to ensure it’s spent responsibly and not turned into a slush fund. But the task force now lacks a leader, and the panel of inspectors general will now have to make a new selection from among their ranks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.