In Another Pushback Against Oversight, Trump Removes Pandemic Inspector General

Apr 7, 2020
Originally published on November 12, 2020 9:18 am

President Trump has removed the head of a group charged with overseeing the $2 trillion coronavirus package passed by Congress last month.

The coronavirus recovery law requires that an existing inspector general be selected by a council of inspectors general to oversee the response to the pandemic. That council picked Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general at the Department of Defense, to lead the newly formed Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

But on Monday, the president designated Sean W. O'Donnell, the inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the new acting inspector general at the Department of Defense, thus voiding Fine's eligibility to lead coronavirus oversight efforts.

Fine "is no longer on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee," said Dwrena Allen, a spokesperson for the Pentagon Inspector General's office, adding that Fine would revert to his old role as the principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Defense.

Fine has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, serving for more than a decade as the inspector general at the Department of Justice. He joined the Department of Defense's Office of Inspector General in 2015.

In a statement, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, called Fine's removal "a direct insult to the American taxpayers," adding that Trump's "actions are a blatant attempt to degrade the independence of Inspectors General who serve as checks against waste, fraud, and abuse."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump has bristled at the oversight actions of several inspectors general during his presidency. This featured prominently over the past week, including with the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson on Friday.

Atkinson pushed back, saying in a statement late Sunday that his actions were in keeping with the federal whistleblower law.

"It is hard not to think that the President's loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General," said Atkinson, who received a whistleblower complaint in August 2019 about allegedly improper commitments made by Trump to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The complaint eventually led to an impeachment inquiry, then the acquittal of the president in an impeachment trial.

The president has also criticized inspector general findings at the Department of Health and Human Services. A report published Monday found that hospitals are struggling to properly source supplies in response to the coronavirus crisis, and were facing delays in COVID-19 testing.

The president said that complaints about delays in test results were "wrong" and suggested that the inspector general was politically motivated.

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A few weeks ago, Congress approved a $2 trillion economic relief package. That is a lot of money. So it set up an oversight body, the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. A man named Glenn Fine was chosen to head that committee. He's the acting inspector general of the Pentagon. But now President Trump has removed Fine from the committee. NPR's Tim Mak has been looking into this. Tim, what do you know about this guy, Glenn Fine?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: So Glenn Fine is a longtime government watchdog who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations. He served for more than a decade as the Justice Department's inspector general and at the beginning of this coronavirus crisis was serving as the acting inspector general at the Pentagon. So he was chosen, as you said, by fellow inspectors general to head up this powerful accountability organization.

KING: OK. And then what happened?

MAK: Well, the law says that you have to be a current inspector general to hold that position of leadership. And so when the president removed him and designated a new inspector general at the Pentagon on Monday, he also voided Fine's eligibility to oversee the coronavirus package. Trump's move doesn't entirely dismiss him from the federal government, however. Fine will still be working as a deputy in the Pentagon's inspector general office.

KING: Has the president explained why he did this?

MAK: Well, the president addressed this last night.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As you know, it's a presidential decision.

MAK: Trump also made an unspecified reference to supposed bias that Fine might have, something that has not been substantiated.


TRUMP: When we have, you know, reports of bias and when we have different things coming in.

MAK: And he also suggested that Glenn Fine was not going to be fair.


TRUMP: We have a lot of ideas in from the Obama era.

MAK: To be clear, Fine has served under the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations as an inspector general.

KING: So what's the response to what the president did?

MAK: Well, the response has been pretty negative, especially from Democrats, including those who were involved in oversight of the Trump administration. Here's one example. House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney said that Glenn Fine's removal was a, quote, "direct insult to the American taxpayer of all political stripes who want to make sure their tax dollars are not squandered."

KING: Let me ask you a big-picture question. How would you characterize the Trump administration's approach to oversight in general with all of this coronavirus money that's flowing around?

MAK: Well, the president has bristled especially recently at attempts to oversee his administration's actions. When he signed the $2 trillion pandemic recovery bill into law, the president said he would not be honoring an oversight provision that allowed a special inspector general to flag certain concerns and problems to Congress. Then earlier this week, Trump pushed back against a report by the HHS inspector general. That IG said Monday that hospitals in America are struggling to properly source supplies in response to the coronavirus crisis and were facing delays in COVID-19 testing. The president dismissed this.


TRUMP: Did I hear the word inspector general? Really? It's wrong. And they'll talk to you about it. It's wrong.

MAK: And he suggested political motivation.


TRUMP: Give me the name of the inspector general. Could politics be entered into that?

MAK: Well, so this pattern has extended beyond coronavirus oversight as well. Late Friday night, Trump fired the intelligence community inspector general. You'll recall he was the one who told Congress about a whistleblower complaint relating to Ukraine. The complaint ultimately led to an impeachment trial. Michael Atkinson's his name, and he said he was fired essentially for doing his job by the book.

KING: NPR's Tim Mak. Tim, thanks so much for your reporting.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.