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Trump throws ‘wrecking ball’ across federal inspectors general

President sets off chain reaction that could weaken government oversight

President Donald Trump in a span of 24 hours has upended the executive branch’s internal oversight of most of the government’s discretionary budget.

In one fell swoop, Trump removed the newly named leader of a watchdog committee overseeing federal pandemic response spending. He then ordered one person to oversee, for the near term, all audits and investigations of military and environmental programs. And he nominated what some consider to be a relatively unqualified official to monitor the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar enterprise.

The moves come on the heels of the president’s firing on Friday of the intelligence community inspector general who had forwarded to Congress the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment inquiry.

Trump had previously fired others who testified in the impeachment inquiry. And on Monday, he questioned the political motives of the Health and Human Services inspector general who had written a report documenting shortfalls of equipment in hospitals responding to COVID-19 cases.

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith on Tuesday afternoon called the moves a “major problem” and said he would work to get bipartisan support for provisions to ensure the independence of IGs. But the Washington Democrat, who will oversee the drafting of the annual Pentagon policy bill, is not optimistic, citing the “crickets” he heard from Republicans when it came to pushing back on the reprogramming of weapons money to pay for Trump’s border wall.

“Trump wants sycophants” working for him, Smith said. “What he cares about is people kissing his ass.”

Chain reaction

Trump’s latest IG-related moves set off a chain reaction that critics worry could weaken government oversight for years.

First, Trump effectively ordered Glenn Fine, who has performed the duties of Pentagon inspector general since 2016, to revert to his position as principal deputy IG, according to Dwrena Allen, Fine’s spokeswoman.

Fine will be replaced in the top Defense IG job by Sean O’Donnell, who is the EPA inspector general. O’Donnell will simultaneously serve as acting Defense IG and EPA IG, at least until a permanent Pentagon inspector general is in place.

Fine had been tapped just over one week ago to be the government’s primary watchdog over pandemic response money.

Michael Horowitz, the chairman of the multi-agency IG group called the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, had announced March 30 that Fine would chair the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which the latest pandemic supplemental created to oversee the $2.3 trillion rescue package.

“Mr. Fine is no longer on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee,” Allen said.

It is not clear who will replace Fine in that role, and a spokeswoman for the council of IGs did not immediately respond to a query.

“Glenn Fine reverts to his position as the Principal Deputy Inspector General,” Allen said. “He remains focused and committed to the important mission of the DoD OIG.”

The last, but potentially most significant, move in this flurry of actions was Trump’s nomination Monday of Jason Abend to be the new Defense Department IG, responsible for overseeing audits and criminal investigations of nearly $700 billion in annual spending.

Abend is a policy adviser at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection who has served as a special agent at the Federal Finance Housing Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Credibility concerns

Some experts on inspectors general are worried about the latest developments.

Abend is “utterly unqualified” to oversee investigations into the huge Pentagon bureaucracy, according to Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight and a veteran observer of IGs.

“He absolutely does not have the qualifications,” Brian said.

Fine had been the longest-serving inspector general in history, having not only led the Defense IG office for four years but having served as Justice Department IG from 2000 to 2011. His selection as the IG to oversee pandemic response oversight had been praised last week by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

But the pandemic IG was chosen by Horowitz, not Trump, and that might have been a problem at the White House, Brian said.

“The president clearly — in this wrecking ball across IGs in the last few days — wanted to make sure he was undercutting the one aspect he didn’t have control over,” Brian said.

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