President Donald Trump’s recent hostility toward independent federal watchdogs has jolted the very Senate Republicans who are among his most outspoken defenders.
Two months after acquitting Trump on charges of obstructing Congress, GOP senators are sounding subtle but unmistakable alarms about Trump’s efforts to brush back lawmakers’ oversight of the government’s behemoth, $3 trillion response to the coronavirus pandemic. And their warnings have grown more urgent as Trump mounts a concerted campaign against inspectors general, one of the last functional checks on his administration’s performance.
“We need to empower inspectors general to be able to do their work — especially when you’re dealing with trillions of dollars, you’ve got to have good, reasonable oversight over those things,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who penned a letter to Trump last week on the topic, said in an interview.
That Lankford and other GOP senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa have felt compelled to speak out publicly underscores the degree to which Trump has undermined routine congressional oversight — including the very mechanisms that Republicans themselves have crafted to rein in a rogue executive.
The public disapprovals come as Trump faces criticism over his abrupt removal of the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, and his refusal to provide Congress with an adequate explanation, as required by law.
And without responses from the White House, GOP senators have stepped up their public rebukes of the president as they try to convince him that independent government watchdogs are his friends, not his enemies. Lankford and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in their letter to Trump last week outlined why they think it’s in the president’s best interest to “work with IGs, not against them.”
Grassley in particular has spent his career building up the watchdog community, and he led a similar crusade against President Barack Obama when he fired an inspector general without proper congressional notification. Now, as Trump takes actions that threaten the protections he perhaps cares about the most, Grassley is sending a mild-mannered but unambiguous plea to get the president to back off.
“Sen. Grassley has been a pain in the side of every president since he stepped foot in Congress back in 1975,” said Michael Davis, who served as the chief nominations counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee under Grassley’s chairmanship.
But despite Grassley’s uncharacteristically outspoken criticism of the president, he has yet to threaten to issue subpoenas or place holds on Trump’s prized nominations in order to secure the information he is seeking. It’s unclear how Grassley would proceed if his demands continue to go unanswered and unfulfilled.
Democrats say they’ll take what they can get from a Republican Party that has been reluctant to scrutinize the president.
“While I appreciate the steps Chairman Grassley has taken to request oversight of this administration, it is not enough to defend taxpayer funds and other government resources against abuse,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Grassley’s counterpart atop the Finance Committee.
Defending his direct pleas to Trump, Lankford specifically cited “some of the statements the president has made about inspectors general” which present a “growing challenge” for Congress’ ability to safeguard independent watchdogs from the political whims of a president, regardless of party.
Lankford is one of a handful of Republican senators to have appealed in recent weeks directly to Trump urging him to support the inspector general community and send qualified, permanent nominees to the Senate for consideration instead of relying on “acting” watchdogs.
But beyond their concerns about having Senate-confirmed personnel in place across the government, these lawmakers — many of them loyal allies of the president — are tacitly arguing that Trump is undermining watchdogs’ ability to do their job independent of the political winds and, in turn, shivving Congress’ built-in mechanisms to ensure their independence.
“I do want inspectors general to have the freedom to be able to make decisions and to not fear that they’re going to be released from their jobs at any point,” Lankford added, referring to Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson. “But I think there’s a better way to be able to handle it other than just saying, ‘I’m firing [you] because we disagree on some things.’ The president’s team has to be able to give all their reasons for that, just like the Obama team did as well.”
The spread of the coronavirus has brought with it an onslaught of new congressional demands for information and lawmaker-led pressure campaigns, and the price tags of the relief packages present lawmakers with challenges to rein in the waste, fraud and abuse that are likely to accompany the process.
But less than three months after avoiding removal from office on charges of stonewalling Congress, Trump is doubling down on his hostility toward the legislative branch’s oversight requests — including, and especially, ones coming from his fellow Republicans.
In response to their overtures, Trump has deployed a more expansive view than ever on his ability to quash lawmakers’ oversight demands.
The most recent spate began when Trump stated his intention to chip away at key oversight mechanisms built into the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, including requirements of congressional notification if the newly created inspector general is “unreasonably refused or not provided with” any information. Trump later removed the inspector general charged with overseeing the pandemic response, Glenn Fine, and he blasted the Health and Human Services Department’s watchdog over a report detailing widespread failures to provide adequate coronavirus testing at hospitals.
Trump’s recent confrontations with the inspectors general community haven’t been limited to the congressional response to the ongoing pandemic; Republicans and Democrats alike were roundly critical of his decision to sack Atkinson — a move that prompted Grassley to seek an explanation for the firing and to question whether the president sought to circumvent Congress’ authority.
Trump has yet to respond to Grassley’s bipartisan letter demanding a fuller explanation for the termination of Atkinson, who provoked Trump’s ire when he transferred a whistleblower complaint to Congress that jump-started the House’s impeachment inquiry last year. Trump was supposed to respond to the lawmakers by April 13.
“That’s not really giving Congress the ability to understand the reason,” Lankford said of Trump’s nonresponse to the Atkinson inquiry. “When the Obama administration did that, they followed back up and said, ‘Here’s why, here’s what.’ We expect the Trump administration to be able to do the same.”
Grassley is unique in his crusade. No GOP lawmaker has perhaps been more outspoken about Trump’s hostility toward inspectors general, and the seven-term senator brings with him a résumé that includes authoring several laws on whistleblower protections and the independence of the federal government’s watchdogs. In his letters to Trump, he often notes his previous efforts to hold the Obama administration accountable for similar erosions of congressional authority.
“IGs can help drain the swamp,” Grassley wrote in an April 21 letter to Trump, his second direct plea to the president on the issue of inspectors general in recent weeks. “They find the waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs and they find ways to save taxpayer money.”
Grassley, who now chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has found that his legacy is on the line when it comes to inspectors general. His criticisms of Trump — in the careful way that defines this political era — are getting noticed; but Trump has shown no signs of letting up.
Grassley, though, has leverage — and lots of it. The Iowa Republican has been instrumental in helping Trump secure some of the most significant wins of his presidency, including tax cuts, criminal justice reform and the successful Senate confirmations of two Supreme Court justices. At the same time, Grassley has sent a handful of judicial nominees packing after they couldn’t answer basic questions in committee hearings or were unqualified to sit on the federal bench. Trump needs Grassley more than Grassley needs Trump, his allies say, giving serious heft to the 86-year-old’s efforts.
“He’s not a rubber stamp,” Davis argued. “He’s a team player, but when he feels strongly about things, he has no problem voicing his disagreements.”
Wyden has joined at least one of Grassley’s efforts on inspectors general. The pair wrote a letter last week to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general who also serves as chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, demanding information about the vetting process for IG nominees.
Grassley has also written to top health officials to inquire about how they are handling coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes; and he most recently joined forces with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to seek a review of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ compliance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to ensure the safety of inmates and employees.
Democrats continue to argue, though, that simply writing letters isn’t enough unless they are backed up with concrete action.
“The sad fact is, the Republican caucus has by and large been willing to let Donald Trump use the federal government like a personal piggy bank for his donors and political allies, and to retaliate against those who stand up to him,” Wyden said.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.