April 7, 2020
Sometimes corruption is hard to spot. Sometimes they make it obvious. After a panel of Inspectors General (IGs) named Department of Defense (DoD) Acting IG Glenn Fine to head the group overseeing $2 trillion in coronavirus relief funds, President Trump removed him from his role at DoD, ending his chairmanship of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). This is a continuation of the all out attack Trump is waging on those with the power to hold his administration accountable.
This decision, following Trump’s dismissal of Inspector General for the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson, who told Congress about the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, and the appointment of a White House impeachment lawyer in another coronavirus oversight post, confirms reports that Trump is implementing a purge to replace independent Inspectors General with loyalists, directly undermining oversight from the relief bill.This is an attack on dissent and accountability in the government.
Last month, as required by law, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency appointed Fine to Chair its PRAC. In that role, Fine was tasked with leading the independent panel’s work to ensure that the trillions in taxpayer funds allocated to address the pandemic response in the bill and two prior emergency spending bills are being used appropriately. In addition, the PRAC will also support efforts to “prevent and detect fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement [and] mitigate major risks that cut across program and agency boundaries.” Fine’s unceremonious dismissal from his DoD post also “effectively removed Fine from his role overseeing the coronavirus relief effort, since the new law permits only current inspectors general to fill the position.” In his place, President Trump named one of his appointees, EPA IG Sean O’Donnell, who was only sworn in this January, as Acting DoD IG. It is unclear whether O’Donnell or someone else will assume Fine’s chairmanship of the PRAC, but the answer is of critical importance to oversight of the government’s coronavirus response.
It’s hard to read the timing of the removal as anything other than an attempt at the prevention of independent oversight. What’s worse, it’s not happening in a vacuum. President Trump’s removal of Fine comes in the midst of an ethical firestorm surrounding the Trump administration’s coronavirus response. For example, in his signing statement for the coronavirus bill, Trump argued that he could gag the new special IG for Pandemic Recovery from reporting administration misconduct or obstruction directly to Congress. There’s absolutely no reason to do that if you believe in transparency.
Fine’s dismissal remains shocking, but more shocking is how closely it followed Trump’s announcement of his intent to fire Atkinson. In fact, it’s not the first time that Trump has taken action against Glenn Fine. In February 2017, Trump withdrew Fine’s nomination to serve as permanent IG at the Department of Defense. The vacancy has lasted for the entire duration of Trump’s presidency. The action was particularly curious because Fine had already served as a Senate-confirmed IG at the Department of Justice, where his nomination was approved by the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee and later the full body.
At this point, there is no doubt: Trump has launched an open assault on Inspectors General. Last night, he dismissed findings by the Health and Human Services office of Inspector General contradicting his statements about medical supply shortages across the country and then demanded to know the name of the acting official leading the office. Trump has also left several IG positions vacant at agencies integral to the administration’s coronavirus response, and recently announced his intent to nominate several political appointees to fill other traditionally independent and apolitical IG posts.
That Trump is using a pandemic to cover for his attack on democracy should send a chill down the spine of every patriotic American. Trump has shown again and again that what matters most to him is loyalty, not to our Constitution, but to him. For inspectors general, independence must be paramount. “Kiss my ring or be replaced with a lackey” is no way to run a democracy.
Make no mistake, this is the canary in the coal mine. This is the erosion of democracy. If Congress does not act soon, it may already be too late.