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Mattis rebukes Trump over removal of Pentagon inspector general

Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a rare public rebuke of President Trump Tuesday over his decision to fire Glenn Fine, the Pentagon inspector general charged with overseeing implementation of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. 

“Mr. Fine is a public servant in the finest tradition of honest, competent governance,” Mattis told Yahoo News in an email. “In my years of extensive engagement with him as our Department of Defense’s acting Inspector General, he proved to be a leader whose personal and managerial integrity were always of the highest order.”

The Department of Defense announced Trump’s latest salvo in an ongoing bid to reshape government oversight of his administration on Tuesday, saying that the president had removed Fine from the acting inspector general role he had held at the Pentagon for more than four years. 

“Mr. Fine is no longer on the pandemic response accountability committee,” Department of Defense spokeswoman Dwrena Allen said in a written statement.

Prior to his role at the Pentagon, Fine served for 11 years as inspector general at the Justice Department. Allen said he would be replaced by Sean O’Donnell, who currently serves as inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

“Trump has woken up to the fact that IGs pose a threat to him,” said Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general who originally hired Fine and praised him as a hard-working and popular inspector general who had engendered strong loyalty within his office at the Pentagon. He noted that until now, inspectors general have largely felt protected to conduct independent oversight of government wrongdoing — unless there was some evidence they engaged in misconduct.

“This president has now changed the game,” Bromwich added. “It puts a huge cloud over IGs. … This is a president that resists any form of oversight.”

The move, coming on top of Trump’s firing on Friday of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, puts the spotlight on Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department IG. Horowitz, as chair of a federal council of inspectors general, had just last week selected Fine to chair the newly created Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), a key office set up by Congress to monitor spending under the coronavirus recovery legislation. 

At the time, Horowitz praised Fine as “uniquely qualified” to head the committee, noting his 15 years of experience heading up inspector general offices at Justice and Defense as well as his commitment to “the need for transparency surrounding, and strong and effective independent oversight of, the federal government’s spending in response to this public health crisis.”

Glenn Fine, then acting inspector general at the Defense Department, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Horowitz, who last Friday put out a strong statement criticizing Trump’s firing of Atkinson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Fine’s dismissal. But Horowitz is now in a position to name a replacement for Fine to head the pandemic oversight office.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, referred to Horowitz in a Tuesday statement in which he defended the role of of inspectors general.

“The White House should empower inspectors general so they’re able to do their job, as President Trump did with Inspector General Horowitz and his report on FISA abuse involving the president’s 2016 campaign,” Grassley said in his statement.

Danielle Brian, executive director on the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group, said the widely respected Horowitz may put the White House on the spot by naming himself.

Brian and others familiar with Fine’s work at the Defense Department said there was no report or investigation he conducted that would have angered or annoyed the Trump White House. He had gotten high marks for his performance, including from Mattis. But Fine carried one big black mark against him that likely cost him his job: He had originally been nominated for the Pentagon inspector general position by President Barack Obama. 

Under current law, inspectors general, although they are supposed to be independent, can be removed by presidents for any reason at all — so long as a reason for a dismissal is articulated to Congress, something Trump has not yet done for his removal of Atkinson. But some critics are suggesting the moves against Atkinson and Fine should prompt Congress to take further steps to protect the government watchdogs. 

“It’s about time that Congress shield Inspectors General from political pressure by granting them cause removal protections, and that the White House share their rationale for this major change. Whistleblowers need confidence in their guardians,” Irvin McCullough, national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project, told Yahoo News in an email.

The announcement about Fine came hours after Trump took aim at Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm, who had issued a report that detailed how “severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results limited hospitals’ ability to monitor the health of patients and staff.” 

Grimm’s report ran counter to Trump’s insistence that the U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak was worthy of praise and that more people had been tested for COVID-19 in the U.S. than in any other country. 

“It could be her opinion,” Trump snapped when asked about Grimm’s report. “When was she appointed? Do me a favor and let me know. Let me know now. I have to know.”

Trump implied that Grimm, who has worked for the inspector general office at HHS since 1999, after being appointed by then-President Bill Clinton, was biased against him and therefore her report could not be trusted. 

Michael Atkinson, then inspector general of the intelligence community, at the Capitol in October. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Atkinson, whom Trump fired Friday, had first told Congress of a whistleblower complaint stemming from the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. 

“I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible,” Trump said of Atkinson during Saturday’s briefing of the White House coronavirus task force. “He took this terrible, inaccurate whistleblower report and brought it to Congress.” 

“Inspector Generals are considered independent watchdogs for the American people. It is very disconcerting to see an effort to replace them with perceived loyalists who may be nothing more than lap dogs for the President,” Mark Zaid, the Washington-based national security and whistleblower attorney who co-represented the Ukraine whistleblower, told Yahoo News in an email. “It is therefore imperative Congress conducts proper oversight during confirmation proceedings to ensure these nominees have the proper credentials and independent spirit needed for the positions.”

Atkinson made clear in a written statement that he believed he had been fired for doing his job. 

“It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General,” Atkinson said in a statement released Sunday. 

“As an Inspector General, I was legally obligated to ensure that whistleblowers had an effective and authorized means to disclose urgent matters involving classified information to the congressional committees, and that when they did blow the whistle in an authorized manner, their identities would be protected as a guard against reprisals,” he added.

President Trump fields a question at a White House coronavirus press briefing Monday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Even so, the final decision to purge the independent overseers may have been a long time coming. Dan Meyer, managing partner at law firm Tully Rinckey’s Washington, D.C., office and the former whistleblower ombudsman in the intelligence community inspector general’s office, told Yahoo News in an email that Trump “had this instinct” to replace many of these watchdogs when he entered office in January 2017.

“When Trump took power, the vast majority of IGs were Dems; it is not a community Republicans naturally gravitated toward,” he wrote. Trump and his Cabinet also appear to support the “unitary executive theory” by which Congress does not have a direct channel to the inspector general system, despite the fact that it technically reports to both branches of government.

Even so, Meyer argued, the inspector general system has often failed to substantiate complaints and support whistleblowers in recent years. 

While Trump simply told Congress he had lost confidence in Atkinson, Grassley, a longtime defender of inspectors general, said that explanation wasn’t enough.

“Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence,” he said in a statement. “More details are needed from the administration.” 

Grassley on Tuesday in a tweet continued to defend the role of inspectors general but also offered praise for Trump’s coronavirus response.

But McCullough argued that by removing or silencing those charged with issuing impartial assessments, Trump is ultimately weakening the oversight process.

“When any administration makes personnel decisions involving their independent watchdogs, they should take care to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” McCullough said. “Otherwise, federal workers become much more hesitant to believe these watchdogs can protect them when they blow the whistle either as original tipsters or cooperative sources to an investigation. This administration took no such care.”

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