WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats say a White House letter declaring that President Donald Trump followed the law when he fired multiple inspectors general is inadequate and even disrespectful, escalating a bipartisan fight with Trump over his removal of internal watchdogs.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees inspectors general, called the White House's explanation “completely inadequate” and said it "fails to provide any legitimate reason for the removal of an inspector general.''
Now, more than ever, "the Senate has to stand up for the independence and integrity of these independent agency watchdogs,'' Peters said in a statement Wednesday, adding that he is working with senators from both parties to strengthen oversight and accountability throughout the federal government.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called the White House letter “dismissive” and “a disrespectful slap in the face” to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who has long worked to protect inspectors general.
Grassley, a self-appointed defender of inspectors general and congressional oversight, requested that the White House explain the basis for the firings in April and May of the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department.
The response Tuesday from White House counsel Pat Cipollone does not provide those details, instead making the points that Trump has the authority to remove inspectors general, that he appropriately alerted Congress and that he selected qualified officials as replacements.
“When the President loses confidence in an inspector general, he will exercise his constitutional right and duty to remove that officer — as did President Reagan when he removed inspectors general upon taking office and as did President Obama when he was in office,” Cipollone wrote.
Grassley said late Tuesday that he was dissatisfied with the White House’ response. "Congress made clear that if the president is going to fire an inspector general, there ought to be a good reason for it,'' he said.
Grassley, a Trump ally, said he does not dispute Trump’s authority under the Constitution to fire an inspector general. But he said, “Without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general. If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is.”
Democrats and good-government groups fear the Republican president is moving to dismantle a post-Watergate network of watchdogs meant to root out corruption, fraud and other problems inside federal agencies.
"The White House took five pages to thumb its nose at Congress,'' said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
The letter's blunt, take-it-or-leave-it tone “should put to rest any question whether the current law is adequate. It is not,'' Brian said Wednesday. She called on Congress to approve enhanced protections for inspectors general and impose “meaningful consequences” when the president fires an IG without cause.
“It's time for Congress to stop writing letters and start drafting legislation,'' Brian said. Without a strong rebuke from Congress, she added, Trump "will continue to destroy these watchdogs with abandon.''
A spokeswoman for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Portman has consistently called on the Trump administration to provide more thorough explanations, as required by law, regarding any IG removal. Portman and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., wrote a letter to Trump last month stressing the importance of inspectors general and declaring that they must be Senate-confirmed, independent and “empowered” to conduct audits and investigations.
The tumult over IGs has not been limited to the watchdog offices at the State Department and the intelligence community.
Trump also demoted Glenn Fine from his role as acting inspector general at the Pentagon, effectively removing him as head of a special board to oversee auditing of the coronavirus economic relief package. Fine resigned Tuesday.
And Trump moved to replace the chief watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who testified Tuesday that her office was moving ahead with new reports and audits on the department's response to the coronavirus despite Trump's public criticism of her.
Taken together, the moves have raised alarms about efforts to weaken government oversight and possible retaliation for investigations or actions seen as unfavorable to the administration.
Michael Atkinson, who was fired as intelligence community inspector general last month, advanced a whistleblower complaint that resulted in the president's impeachment. Democrats say Steve Linick was fired as State Department inspector general as he was conducting investigations tied to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Grassley, who bristles at criticism that he has gone easy on Trump, also criticized the White House for allowing two acting inspectors general — at the State and Transportation departments — to hold separate jobs within those agencies at same time.
Stephen Akard, State’s new acting inspector general, also serves as the Senate-confirmed director of the Office of Foreign Missions, where he oversees the treatment of foreign missions and their representatives in the United States. Howard “Skip” Elliott, the new acting inspector general at Transportation, is administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a key Transportation agency. He has pledged to recuse himself from investigations into the pipeline agency.
Grassley said he is working on legislation to block political appointees from serving as acting IGs.