Grassley alarmed by Trump firings

A month ago in this space, I noted that Iowa’s senior U.S. senator, Chuck Grassley, “has steadily protected whistleblowers.” Last week he initiated an effort to do just that.

Remember the government employee who in late July last year reported President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky, in which Trump implied he needed Zelensky to announce an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden in exchange for U.S. military aid?

That employee became a whistleblower when he notified the inspector general of his department about the call. The inspector general, Michael Atkinson, decided the information about the call was credible and immediate, and notified Congress, as federal law required him to do. The result was the impeachment of President Trump.

Another result of the whistleblower’s phone call took place two weeks ago, when Trump announced Inspector General Atkinson would be removed from his position in 30 days. The only reason Trump gave was that he had lost confidence in Atkinson. 

A federal law requires the president to give Congress the specific reasons for such removals. Simply losing confidence in an IG is not enough.

What’s more, Trump placed Atkinson on immediate leave, in effect terminating him at once, in violation of the 30-day notice requirement.

Sen. Grassley and several other senators want to know more about Atkinson’s removal. Last week a letter to the president from Grassley and seven other senators, two Republicans like Grassley and five Democrats, spelled out for Trump what the law requires:

“Congressional intent is clear that an expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the statute. This is in large part because Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to perform the duties of the office, and not for reasons unrelated to their performance, to help preserve IG independence.” 

Trump’s entire career, both before the White House and since his election, is pockmarked by his opposition to independent critics from whom he can’t demand loyalty.

Since his election, he has battled the media, the courts, state governments and Congress, whenever those institutions demonstrate their independence. His ire and retribution are particularly evident when he feels under attack by a federal employee in his administration.

Inspectors general are in the front line of that group. So in addition to Atkinson’s removal, Trump last week fired IG Glenn Fine.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the $500 billion portion of the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act that Congress designated for economic help for large corporations as a result of economic damage sustained by them from the coronavirus pandemic.

The act was approved overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate and signed by President Trump after five days of intense interparty discussions. The White House participated in the negotiations.

The CARES Act requires the appointment of a special inspector general to investigate and review decisions on loans made from the corporation aid fund by Secretary of the Treasury Stephen Mnuchin. Democrats insisted on, and got, inclusion of that provision to make sure that corporation aid is not doled out for political purposes, or other improper reasons.  

The inspector general is to notify Congress whenever information about the use of the fund is “unreasonably refused or not provided” to him.

Glenn Fine, the longtime Pentagon inspector general, was selected as that special inspector general by a group of his inspector general peers. But shortly after President Trump signed the bill into law, he issued a “signing statement” to the effect that he himself will decide when and whether information about the dispensing of those funds will be given to Congress. In other words, he will not provide the required information if he doesn’t want to.

To emphasize his decision, Trump then removed Glenn Fine. Trump sent him back to the Pentagon and replaced him with someone of Trump’s own choosing.

Sen. Grassley for decades has protected whistleblowers and those to whom they report, like inspectors general. Grassley’s letter to Trump last week asked that the president respond to the senators’ request for information about IG Atkinson’s firing by this past Monday, April 13. 

To no one’s surprise, the president missed the deadline. 

When I contacted the senator’s office on Monday about what Grassley’s next move would be, a press aide replied, “We’ll follow up with the White House, just as we typically do when an agency is late responding, which unfortunately tends to be a chronic problem in all administrations.”

So right now it’s an unanswered question as to whether the reporting requirement on removal of inspectors general like Atkinson and Fine has teeth or not.

That will be up to Grassley and his Senate colleagues.

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