Don’t cross Chuck

Chuck Grassley means business. 

In early April, he and seven other senators (two Republicans and five Democrats) sent a letter to President Trump requesting specific information about Trump’s firing of Inspector General Michael Atkinson. 

Atkinson was the official who sent a whistleblower’s warning to Congress about Trump’s July 2019 phone call to the Ukrainian president. 

On the call, Trump asked that Ukraine announce it would investigate Joe Biden, and implied that American military aid for Ukraine’s defense against Russian incursions was dependent on Ukrainian compliance. 

The phone call generated House proceedings that led to the impeachment of President Trump.

The senators’ April letter asked for a response from Trump by April 13. The White House’s answer was, as they say, crickets. No response. 

Grassley didn’t let it go.

After Trump missed the April 13 deadline, Grassley repeated the request, once again noting that the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008, approved unanimously by Congress, requires a president to provide Congress with 30 days’ advance notice and specific reasons before removing an inspector general. A vague statement of lost confidence doesn’t cut it. Trump had not followed the law.

For decades, the hallmark of Sen. Grassley’s career, besides championing Midwestern production agriculture, has been protecting whistleblowers and independent inspectors in the ranks of federal employees. 

Grassley has always believed that the freedom of such employees to point out waste, fraud, abuse and corruption, sometimes on the part of their supervisors, is necessary to prevent misuse of federal funds and to protect governmental integrity. He can rightly point to several instances in which his defense of whistleblowers has helped to root out wrongdoing during Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

But few instances are of so high a profile as his current spat with President Trump.

When Sen. Grassley’s repeated requests to the White House about Atkinson continued to be ignored, he upped the stakes.

On June 4, he put “holds” on two Trump administrative appointees, one nominated to become director of the National Counterterrorism Center and the other to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. 

Grassley said the holds will remain until Trump explains his firing of Atkinson and another inspector general. 

Sen. Grassley, a Republican, is chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a position from which he can hold up White House appointments more significant than the two he halted three weeks ago. The holds on those two should be seen by the Trump administration as a shot across their bow.

But Grassley’s June 4 holds still didn’t induce Trump to provide the information the eight senators have sought since early April. So Grassley took the next step.

He and Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan on Thursday last week introduced a bill in the Senate to strengthen the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008.

The Grassley-Peters bill calls for several steps to toughen the law:

• To require “substantive rationale, including detailed and case-specific reasons” for firing an inspector general, in response to a court ruling in 2009 in favor of a loose interpretation of the law.

• To require that acting inspectors general be selected from senior ranks within their community, in order to quash temporary replacements using political appointees.

• To safeguard ongoing investigations during transitions of inspectors general.

• And to limit the use of administrative leave following removals. Trump, instead of giving Congress the required 30 days’ notice, had placed Atkinson on immediate leave, in effect firing him at once.

Sen. Grassley summed up the situation in a news release announcing his and Peters’ bill filing:

“It’s really this simple: If inspectors general are doing good work, they should stay; if not, they should go. If the president is going to remove an inspector general, there’d better be a good reason. And there’s absolutely no good reason to leave an IG seat vacant for an extended period. These guidelines apply to all administrations, Republican or Democrat.”

Grassley’s vigilance for whistleblowers and inspectors down through the years has been a lonely quest. 

Rarely have his Republican colleagues stepped up when a Republican president sits in the White House, and rarely have Senate Democrats helped out under a Democratic president.

The challenge is now out there. 

Democrats are likely to help this time. But how many Republican senators will side with Grassley to challenge President Trump? 

The spotlight is especially on Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, whom Grassley has mentored ever since she arrived in the Senate in 2015. 

Will she show backbone enough to do the right thing and stand with Grassley? The Grassley-Peters bill could use some more sponsors.

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