Trump challenges authority, independence of agency watchdogs

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President Donald Trump speaks during a conference call with banks on efforts to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, at the White House, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is moving aggressively to challenge the authority and independence of agency watchdogs overseeing his administration, including removing the inspector general tasked with overseeing the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package that passed Congress with bipartisan support.

In four days, Trump has fired one inspector general tied to his impeachment, castigated another he felt was overly critical of the coronavirus response and sidelined a third meant to safeguard against wasteful spending of the coronavirus funds.

The actions have sent shock waves across the close-knit network of watchdog officials in government, creating open conflict between a president reflexively resistant to outside criticism and an oversight community tasked with rooting out fraud, misconduct and abuse.

The most recent act threatens to upend scrutiny of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue effort now underway, setting the stage for a major clash between Trump, government watchdogs and Democrats who are demanding oversight of the vast funds being pumped into the American economy.

“We’re seeing since Friday a wrecking ball across the IG community,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.

The latest broadside came Tuesday when the Defense Department revealed that Trump had removed acting inspector general Glenn Fine, an experienced official, from his role as head of a coronavirus spending oversight board. It was unclear who might replace Fine, who also lost his title as acting inspector general.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Fine’s abrupt removal “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation by the president against independent overseers.” Trump, she said, is attempting to “disregard critical oversight provisions that hold the administration accountable to the law."

Trump himself shed little light on the decision as he spoke to reporters Tuesday evening, saying he doesn't know Fine, but had “heard the name.”