BLOG: Trump’s War on Watchdogs

Jeff Ruch

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Donald Trump does not care for dogs, but he especially dislikes watchdogs.

More than being the only modern President without a pet dog, his real phobia is about discordant messages emanating from the federal bureaucracy. Particularly irksome are critical reports from federal Inspector Generals. These “IGs” are appointed by him (subject to Senate confirmation) but more importantly he can remove them, basically at will.

As reelection looms, his drive to house-break Inspector Generals is now in overdrive as evidenced by his actions to –

Finish a Post Impeachment Purge

Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General for the intelligence community.

Michael Atkinson, recently fired by Trump for whistleblowing

Last week, Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the IG for the intelligence community, the official who had forwarded a whistleblower’s complaint to Congress about Trump conditioning military aid to the Ukraine to a promise by that country’s leader to investigate the Biden family.

That whistleblower complaint spurred the House of Representatives to impeach Trump and Trump made it no secret that was the reason he dumped Atkinson.

The Trump White House has already removed officials who testified in House hearings leading to the impeachment vote and has reportedly transferred others suspected of disloyalty. PEER is pressing the Office of Special Counsel to prevent further politicization of the civil service.

The Trump message, however, is pellucidly clear: if you cross the White House, you will be forced out of public service.

Install Uber-Loyalists

For most of his term, Trump has kept key IG jobs vacant. Of late, there had not even been nominees for the IG slots overseeing the Departments of Defense, Treasury, and Health & Human Services, for example.

That has all changed. Trump has named a White House lawyer to serve as the IG overseeing the $2.2 trillion pandemic relief package. He has also hastily nominated four other vacant IG slots.

Trump also just dumped the acting Pentagon IG, ousting him as chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee that oversees $2 trillion in emergency coronavirus funding. The acting IG officials now in place are now on extra-short leashes regardless of how the confirmation process for their replacements unwind.

Monkey Wrench Oversight

IGs have no direct power to order change but for decades agencies have exhibited deference to IG findings and recommendations. No longer.

At EPA, for example, Administrator Andrew Wheeler has taken the stand that that IG has no power to compel EPA employees to interview with IG agents. Significantly, Wheeler clearly has the power to order EPA employees to cooperate with IG requests but is now declining to do so.

In addition, Wheeler is demanding that the IG withdraw a report about EPA’s failure to warn a community about its exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

Perhaps the epitome of this phenomena is Trump outrageously accusing his own acting Health & Human Services IG, Christi Grimm, of releasing a “fake dossier” which was actually a report of a survey of hundreds of hospitals about equipment shortages.

In short, Trump agency heads have a green light to ignore any IG findings that detract from today’s agenda.

This is far more than bureaucratic infighting. The stakes could not be higher, as the nation plunges deeper into pandemic emergency. Our ability to find out what federal efforts are working, and which are failing, may be limited to views through Trump-colored glasses. Lives hang in the balance of objective review.

As now-deposed IG Atkinson urged whistleblowers to continue to speak out, these conscientious employees may not find safe harbor with his successor or other Trump-selected IGs.

For more than a generation, PEER has provided experienced guidance and free legal representation to public servants who must speak truth to power. Our services have never been more needed.

Jeff Ruch is the Director of PEER’s Pacific office, having formerly served 25 years as the Executive Director of PEER.

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