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Trump Challenges Agency Watchdogs      04/08 06:25

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump is moving aggressively to 
challenge the authority and independence of agency watchdogs overseeing his 
administration, including removing the inspector general tasked with overseeing 
the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package that passed Congress with 
bipartisan support. 

   In four days, Trump has fired one inspector general tied to his impeachment, 
castigated another he felt was overly critical of the coronavirus response and 
sidelined a third meant to safeguard against wasteful spending of the 
coronavirus funds.

   The actions have sent shock waves across the close-knit network of watchdog 
officials in government, creating open conflict between a president reflexively 
resistant to outside criticism and an oversight community tasked with rooting 
out fraud, misconduct and abuse. 

   The most recent act threatens to upend scrutiny of the $2.2 trillion 
coronavirus rescue effort now underway, setting the stage for a major clash 
between Trump, government watchdogs and Democrats who are demanding oversight 
of the vast funds being pumped into the American economy.

   "We're seeing since Friday a wrecking ball across the IG community," said 
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a 
government watchdog group.

   The latest broadside came Tuesday when the Defense Department revealed that 
Trump had removed acting inspector general Glenn Fine, an experienced official, 
from his role as head of a coronavirus spending oversight board. It was unclear 
who might replace Fine, who also lost his title as acting inspector general.

   House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Fine's abrupt removal "part of a 
disturbing pattern of retaliation by the president against independent 
overseers." Trump, she said, is attempting to "disregard critical oversight 
provisions that hold the administration accountable to the law."

   Trump himself shed little light on the decision as he spoke to reporters 
Tuesday evening, saying he doesn't know Fine, but had "heard the name." 

   A day earlier, Trump had asserted without evidence that an inspector general 
report warning of shortages of coronavirus testing in hospitals was "just 
wrong" and skewed by political bias. The report surveyed  more than 300 U.S. 
hospitals.

   "Did I hear the word inspector general? Really?" Trump said when pressed 
about the Health and Human Services  watchdog report. 

   "Give me the name of the inspector general," Trump demanded, before asking, 
"Could politics be entered into that?" The acting Health and Human Services 
inspector general, Christi A. Grimm, is a career employee who took over the 
position early this year in an interim capacity. 

   Most dramatic of all was Friday's late-night firing of Michael Atkinson, the 
intelligence community inspector general who drew Trump's disdain for notifying 
Congress of an anonymous whistleblower complaint on Ukraine. The complaint led 
to the president's impeachment. 

   Trump defended the firing by complaining that Atkinson had never spoken with 
him about the complaint, even though Atkinson's job is to provide oversight 
independent of the White House.

   The dismissal prompted a sharply worded statement from Justice Department 
watchdog Michael Horowitz, who chairs a council of agency inspectors general 
and who last month had announced Fine's appointment to the pandemic oversight 
board. 

   Diverging from Trump's condemnation of Atkinson as "terrible," Horowitz 
called Atkinson's handling of the whistleblower complaint an example of 
"integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law."

   And he pointedly noted that the inspector general community will continue to 
do its job, including oversight of the more than $2 trillion in coronavirus aid.

   The role of the modern-day inspector general dates to post-Watergate 
Washington, when Congress installed offices inside agencies as an independent 
check against mismanagement and abuse of power. Though inspectors general are 
presidential appointees, some, like Horowitz, serve presidents of both parties. 
All are expected to be nonpartisan.

   Over the years, inspectors general have exposed grave problems through their 
investigations and humbled, or even embarrassed, agency leaders and 
presidential administrations.

   Monday's Health and Human Services report that angered the president 
chronicled long waits for coronavirus test results and supply shortages at 
hospitals across the country. 

   Horowitz, meanwhile has identified significant flaws in the FBI's 
surveillance during the Russia investigation. Trump has praised Horowitz's 
findings even as he's attacked his credibility for not finding evidence of 
political bias in the Russia probe, pejoratively describing him last December 
as an Obama appointee.

   Former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich said Trump 
perceives inspector general offices to have a "uniquely threatening function 
within the executive branch, which is to provide independent oversight of 
governmental functions."

   "It's just something that doesn't compute for him," Bromwich added. "He 
understands the value of loyalty. He doesn't understand the value of 
independence because that can conflict with loyalty."

   Even before this week, Democrats and good-government advocates feared that 
Trump was using the coronavirus rescue package to reward loyalty. He generated 
consternation by selecting Brian Miller, who works in the White House counsel's 
office, to a new Treasury Department position overseeing $500 billion in 
coronavirus aid to industry.

   Miller has worked at the Justice Department and was inspector general for 
nearly a decade at the General Services Administration, which oversees 
thousands of federal contracts. Though he is respected in the oversight 
community, Miller's role in the White House counsel's office is troubling, 
watchdog groups said. 

   Democratic lawmakers had already questioned whether someone who worked for 
the president could be independent, concerns that were accelerated by Fine's 
replacement.

   "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," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told The Associated Press.

   But Trump has made clear his willingness to flout that system, perhaps 
foreshadowing the chaos of the last week. 

   As lawmakers were in the final stages of drafting what became the $2.2 
trillion coronavirus rescue package, he declared, "I'll be the oversight." And 
even when he signed it, he attached a statement that says some of the oversight 
provisions in the law "raise constitutional concerns" and may not be followed.


(KR)

 
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