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Trump’s Attack on the Inspector General’s Office Is an Attack on Accountability

President Trump can’t handle the truth — at least, not when it makes his administration look bad. With his move Friday night to replace the top watchdog for the Department of Health and Human Services, the latest in a series of direct attacks on statutory oversight of his administration, it’s clear that the president remains committed to withholding the truth from the American people as well.

Mr. Trump’s latest target, Christi Grimm, is the department’s principal deputy inspector general, whose office issued a report a month ago revealing the dire state of the nation’s pandemic response. After hundreds of hospital administrators across the United States were interviewed, the report detailed enduring equipment shortages and concerns about testing. “Further, hospitals reported that changing and sometimes inconsistent guidance from federal, state and local authorities posed challenges and confused hospitals and the public.”

Asked about the results of the report at his April 6 news briefing, Mr. Trump declared: “It’s just wrong. Did I hear the word ‘inspector general’? Really? It’s wrong. And they’ll talk to you about it. It’s wrong.”

The president then rushed to discredit Ms. Grimm. “Where did he come from, the inspector general? What’s his name? No, what’s his name? What’s his name?” When told of Ms. Grimm’s two-plus decades in government under Republican and Democratic administrations, Mr. Trump dismissed her as an Obama-era agent of the deep state, an attack he continued on Twitter the next day.

For Mr. Trump, there may be no greater betrayal than being the bearer of unflattering news about his administration.

In recent weeks, the president has been working to cleanse his administration of officials he considers insufficiently loyal. (A very high bar indeed.) Mr. Trump has displayed a particular hostility to inspectors general. On April 3, he informed Congress he would be firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who alerted lawmakers to the existence of a whistle-blower complaint about Ukraine that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment. At the same time, Mr. Trump announced his intention to install a handful of new inspectors general throughout the administration, including naming a White House aide to the new post of special inspector general for a pandemic business rescue fund.

On April 7, he ousted the acting inspector general for the Defense Department, Glenn Fine, who had been tapped by his fellow I.G.s to head a new panel tasked with overseeing how the government spends $2 trillion in coronavirus relief. This came less than two weeks after the president issued a signing statement that he would disregard some of the oversight measures contained in the CARES Act — or, as he called the measures, “impermissible forms of congressional aggrandizement.”

Republican lawmakers say they are “concerned” about Mr. Trump’s war on accountability for the administration’s conduct and the expenditure of taxpayer dollars. At least on paper.

In response to Mr. Atkinson’s firing, a bipartisan group of senators, including the Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, called on the president to explain his decision. In an April 8 letter, they reminded him that inspectors general report “to both the president and Congress, to secure efficient, robust and independent agency oversight,” and they noted that he had failed to abide by the notification requirements for the removal of an inspector general. They requested, in the name of “transparency and accountability,” that Mr. Trump address their concerns by April 13.

The White House could not be bothered.

On April 14, two more Republican senators, Rob Portman of Ohio and James Lankford of Oklahoma, sent their own letter to Mr. Trump, noting that recent moves by the administration had “raised concerns” about its “support for I.G.s and the statutory authority Congress has granted them.” They offered ideas for helping the president “ensure that I.G.s continue to play their important and appropriate role.”

Yet Mr. Trump has made clear that he considers any efforts to hold him accountable to be, by definition, illegitimate. Republicans, by their actions rather than their words, have done little to disabuse him of this notion. Since the G.O.P. controls the Senate, Democrats would need Republican support to check the power of the executive branch. It hasn’t been forthcoming.

Lawmakers serious about protecting inspectors general could start by taking a closer look at the “Inspectors General Independence Act.” Introduced last month by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, both moderate Democrats, the bill aims to shield I.G.s from politically motivated firings by establishing seven-year terms and limiting removals to “for cause,” such as “permanent incapacity, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”

In announcing the legislation, Mr. Murphy noted, “We simply cannot allow President Trump to weaponize independent oversight positions in his administration to reward his friends, punish his political enemies and cover up wrongdoing.” The particular proposal is unlikely to go anywhere in a presidential election year, with this Congress — and this president. But lawmakers should consider whether additional protections for I.G.s might make sense in the future.

Congressional capitulation is dangerous in ordinary times. Now, with a pandemic killing thousands of Americans every day and lawmakers having handed the administration trillions of taxpayer dollars in relief funding, the need for effective checks and balances has never been more acute.

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Source: NY times

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