Democrats seek protections for inspectors general after Trump attacks

By Kyle Cheney

Twenty House committee chairs are asking the nation's top federal agency watchdogs for advice on how to protect them from potential retaliation by President Donald Trump for uncovering mismanagement or wrongdoing inside his administration.

The Democratic committee leaders, who include Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, say they're seeking legislative proposals that could restrict Trump's ability to remove or demote inspectors general for political reasons.

"Unlike any President in modern history, President Trump has engaged in offensive and unjustified attacks against Inspectors General, criticizing them for following the law, and retaliating against them for telling the truth," the chairs wrote in a three-page letter to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, who leads a committee of fellow watchdogs.

Democrats have been acutely concerned about Trump's handling of inspectors general, and their alarm grew last week when Trump abruptly removed the intelligence community's top watchdog, Michael Atkinson. Trump later acknowledged he ousted Atkinson over his decision to inform Congress about the existence of a whistleblower report alleging wrongdoing by the president toward Ukraine that led to Trump’s impeachment.

Trump has also spent recent days attacking the Health and Human Services inspector general for a report indicating that hospitals across the country were unprepared for coronavirus — he accused the 21-year veteran of multiple administration of being an Obama appointee. And he sidelined the top watchdog of the newly signed $2 trillion coronavirus law, Glenn Fine, who had been selected by fellow inspectors general to lead oversight of the massive new aid programs.

"The President’s actions not only flout the law, but they signal to other Inspectors General that they could be punished for doing their jobs," the lawmakers write.

Maloney earlier this week proposed legislation that would expand the pool of inspector generals and staff who could lead the coronavirus relief oversight effort, raising the prospect of a push to return Fine to the position. On Friday, the lawmakers also proposed restrictions on Trump's ability to remove inspectors general without "good cause."

In legislation accompanying their letter, they proposed prohibiting the early removal of inspectors general unless they violate rules or laws, are incapacitated, are credibly accused of mismanagement or abuse their authority. They also ask Horowitz for input on any other proposed changed to the law to protect the independence of inspectors general.

The Democrats also raised concerns in their letter about Trump's pick for a newly created inspector general post meant to safeguard a $500 billion Treasury fund established to assist distressed industries in the coronavirus relief law. Trump nominated Brian Miller, who has a track record as an inspector general but most recently served as a lawyer in Trump’s White House. Democrats worry he won't be independent enough from the administration.

"Each one of these actions by the President would raise significant concerns by itself. Together, they reflect a campaign of political retaliation and reward that is antithetical to good government, undermine the proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars, and degrade the federal government’s ability to function competently," they write.