Senator Grassley, you enabled this

President Donald Trump has added to the list of officials he has sidelined for their role in exposing or investigating him. In what Aaron Blake called a “Friday night news dump for the ages,” Trump informed leaders of the U.S. House and Senate Intelligence Committees on April 3 that he is removing Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson.

Trump put Atkinson on administrative leave to stop him from doing his job before his dismissal takes effect next month (the president was required to give Congress 30 days notice of such action).

The president’s letter provided no specific reason for dumping Atkinson, saying only, “it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”

Atkinson is best known for transmitting to Congress the whistleblower complaint that later sparked Trump’s impeachment, after the Justice Department tried to withhold that complaint from lawmakers. But Iowa’s senior U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, the self-styled patron saint of whistleblowers, didn’t draw attention to Atkinson’s firing on his Twitter feed, which has more than half a million followers.

Although Trump has a pattern of retaliation against those he perceives as political enemies, Grassley didn’t speculate publicly about why Atkinson was shown the door. In a statement his office released on April 4, the senator indicated he wants to know more about the president’s decision.

Inspectors general play a critical role in protecting against fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct, and their work helps ensure the government efficiently serves the people. And they often serve as an outlet to whistleblowers who shine a light to problems in government. They help drain the swamp, so any removal demands an explanation. Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence. More details are needed from the administration.

Trump connected the dots himself a few hours later. During a White House briefing primarily devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic, a reporter asked the president why he fired Atkinson. Wasn’t the inspector general doing his job when he transmitted the whistleblower report to Congress? My transcript, from the video Andrew Desderio posted on Politico:

I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report. It was fake. It was totally wrong. It was about my conversation with the president of Ukraine. He took a fake report, and he brought it to Congress. With an emergency, ok? Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you. […]

So he took this whistleblower–and I keep saying, where’s the whistleblower, right? And why was the whistleblower allowed to do this? Why was he allowed to be, you call it, fraudulent or incorrect transcript? So we offered this IG–I don’t know him. I don’t think I ever met him. I don’t think–He never even came in to see me. How can you do that without seeing the person? He never came in to see me, never requested to see me.

He took this terrible, inaccurate whistleblower report, right? And he brought it to Congress. […]

And over that, with 196 to nothing vote by the Republins, not one dissenting Republican vote, dishonest Democrats impeached a president of the United States. That man is a disgrace to IGs. […] He’s a total disgrace.

A disgrace? Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said in a statement after the news broke on Friday,

Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done “by the book” and consistent with the law.

Asked at his Saturday briefing whether he had run his decision to fire Atkinson by any senators, Trump responded,

Let me just tell you something: that’s my decision. I have the absolute right. Even the fake news last night said, he has the absolute right to do it. […]

You know who the whistleblower is, and so do you, and so does everybody in this room, and so do I. Everybody knows. They give this whistleblower a status that he doesn’t deserve. He’s a fake whistleblower. And frankly, somebody ought to sue his ass off.

Atkinson alleged on April 5 that Trump’s “loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General.” I’ve enclosed that statement in full below.

At this writing, Grassley still hasn’t tweeted about Atkinson’s dismissal. Maybe he’s waiting for the White House to provide a cover story–I mean, “details” he can cite in excusing Trump’s conduct.

In February, Grassley defended the president’s retaliation against some who had testified during House impeachment hearings.

One thing’s for sure: by getting rid of a widely-respected watchdog while a deadly pandemic dominated news coverage, Trump proved House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff right. Schiff warned senators during his closing argument at Trump’s impeachment trial,

He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less. And decency matters not at all.

Grassley ignored that warning and couldn’t bring himself to criticize the president’s conduct in any way in the speech explaining his acquittal vote. So I don’t expect any serious attempt to hold Trump accountable now.

I’ll update this post as needed with additional comments from Grassley on this matter.

UPDATE: Grassley finally commented on Twitter on April 7,

So, after Trump retaliated against yet another person who had done his job honorably, Grassley asked the president to “view IGs as helpers.” Imagine how Grassley would have thundered against a Democratic president who sidelined people for helping bring his own misconduct to light.

Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Connor O’Brien broke the news on April 7 that Trump is going after more inspectors general.

A panel of inspectors general had named Glenn Fine — the acting Pentagon watchdog — to lead the group charged with monitoring the coronavirus relief effort. But Trump on Monday [April 6] removed Fine from his post, instead naming the EPA inspector general to serve as the temporary Pentagon watchdog in addition to his other responsibilities.

That decision, which began circulating on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, effectively removed Fine from his role overseeing the coronavirus relief effort, since the new law permits only current inspectors general to fill the position.

“Mr. Fine is no longer on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee,” Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon inspector general’s office, confirmed. She added that Fine will return to his Senate-confirmed post as principal deputy inspector general of the Pentagon. […]

Trump has also begun sharply attacking Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm, following a report from her office that described widespread testing delays and supply issues at the nation’s hospitals.

I sought comment from Grassley on those developments. His staff did not reply, but the office put out this news release on the afternoon of April 7. It does not mention Atkinson by name.

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a staunch advocate of inspectors general and congressional oversight, today released the following statement.

“Inspectors General provide a critical check on an otherwise unaccountable bureaucracy. In other words, they help drain the swamp. Their duty is to provide nonpartisan recommendations and remove politics from the inner workings of our federal government.

“The White House should empower inspectors general so they’re able to do their job, as President Trump did with Inspector General Horowitz and his report on FISA abuse involving the president’s 2016 campaign. Inspector General Horowitz’s independent oversight of the Department of Justice and the FBI exposed serious shortcomings, political influence in law enforcement and egregious abuses of power.

“The law requires the president to notify Congress ahead of any termination of a Senate-confirmed inspector general and to provide a written explanation. President Trump must prioritize filling inspector general vacancies with permanent nominees so this important congressional oversight function can occur. At the same time, senators who are truly interested in holding the executive branch accountable should not be delaying the confirmation of noncontroversial nominees and burning up valuable floor time.”

For decades, Grassley has fought for tougher oversight of military spending at the Department of Defense. Grassley also released the following statement.

“I thank Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine for his service to his country and I wish him well as he returns to his role of Principal Deputy Inspector General. The Pentagon watchdog is tasked with overseeing one of the largest organizations on Earth and it’s not an easy job. The next inspector general needs to aggressively root out fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement and make hard-hitting recommendations for corrective action.

“The Department of Defense’s size requires a strong inspector general who is willing to go toe to toe with military brass and stand up to the entrenched bureaucracy at the Pentagon. The military’s budget is so vast and its management so averse to change, the next inspector general can’t be afraid to hold leadership accountable and fight to protect taxpayers and servicemembers.

“Every dollar wasted is a dollar that doesn’t go to protect our military men and women. Improper spending at the Pentagon is a chronic problem and a full and valid audit is needed and long overdue. The next inspector general must be more aggressive and tougher with Department of Defense management.”

Meanwhile, Susan Crabtree of Real Clear Politics reports that Trump is firing more inspectors general who were appointed under previous administrations. The president said at his April 7 media briefing that he “put in seven names” for those positions.

LATER UPDATE: Grassley’s office released this statement and letter to Trump on April 8.

Letter to President Trump details Importance of IGs & removal procedures

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime advocate for inspectors general and government oversight across political party and administration, today led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in calling on President Trump to provide a detailed written explanation for his decision to remove an inspector general. In a letter, the lawmakers underscore the important role inspectors general play in holding agencies accountable and outline the removal procedures, which are designed to prevent political interference. Cosigners of Grassley’s letter include Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Ron Wyden (D-Ore), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

The 2008 Inspector General Reform Act requires the president to provide Congress with a written explanation at least 30 days prior to removing an inspector general. On Friday, President Trump informed Congress of his intention to remove Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, citing a lack of confidence. However, the 2008 law requires additional details.

“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,” the senators wrote.

The senators also raised concern about Atkinson being immediately placed on paid administrative leave, effectively removing him from his post prior to the 30-day expiration.

Grassley raised similar concerns in 2009 when President Obama placed Americorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin on administrative leave and announced plans to terminate him, citing a lack of confidence. Walpin was never reinstated to his position.

In a statement shortly after Trump announced plans to remove Atkinson, Grassley called for more information from the administration regarding the decision. He also tweeted and commented about the importance of qualified inspectors general earlier this week.

Full text of the senators’ letter to Trump follows.

April 8, 2020

VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION

The Honorable Donald J. Trump
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Trump:

According to reports, on Friday, April 3, you placed Intelligence Community Inspector General (IC IG) Michael Atkinson on administrative leave for thirty days pending his removal from office.[1] As you know, Congress created inspectors general to combat waste, fraud, and abuse, and to be independent watchdogs holding federal agencies accountable to the taxpayer. Congress established the IC IG, “to initiate and conduct independent investigations, inspections, audits, and reviews on programs and activities within the responsibility and authority of the Director of National Intelligence.”[2] Further, the IC IG and indeed all inspectors general (IG) are designed to fulfill a dual role, reporting to both the President and Congress, to secure efficient, robust, and independent agency oversight. To ensure inspectors general are fully capable of performing their critical duties, and in recognition of their importance both to efficient administration and to the legislative function, Congress set clear, statutory notice requirements for their potential removal.

Specifically, current law requires that you inform the Senate and House Intelligence Committees in writing of the reasons for your removal of the IC IG, at least 30 days prior to that removal.[3] However, in your recent letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, you stated only that, “it is vital that [you] have the fullest confidence” in those serving as IGs and that “this is no longer the case” with regard to Mr. Atkinson.[4] Further, according to public reports, Mr. Atkinson already was placed on administrative leave, effectively removing him from his position prior to the completion of the statutorily required notice period.[5]

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.[6] The Senate Committee Report on the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 provides further clarity regarding the high bar that is expected in cases of removal. In that report, the Committee expressed its intent that, “Inspectors General who fail to perform their duties properly whether through malfeasance or nonfeasance, or whose personal actions bring discredit upon the office, be removed.” The report also states that, “[t]he requirement to notify the Congress in advance of the reasons for the removal should serve to ensure that Inspectors General are not removed for political reasons.”[7]

In 2009, senators of both parties raised similar concerns when the Obama administration removed the IG of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Gerald Walpin, by placing him on administrative leave for 30 days without consulting members of Congress.[8] Like the present notice at issue here, the initial notice of removal for IG Walpin only vaguely noted the President no longer had “the fullest confidence” in him.[9] At that time, the senators affirmed Congress’s intent that any notice of removal should clearly outline specific reasons supporting that decision. The senators also reiterated the purpose for the 30 day notice to Congress: to provide an opportunity for an appropriate dialogue with Congress in the event that the planned transfer or removal is viewed as an inappropriate or politically motivated attempt to terminate an effective inspector general. By placing the IG on 30 days of administrative leave and naming an acting replacement, the administration has already effectively removed that IG and appears to have circumvented Congress’s role in this process.[10]

As supporters of the Inspector General community, and as advocates for government transparency and accountability, it is our responsibility to confirm that there are clear, substantial reasons for removal. To that end, we ask that you provide more detailed reasoning for the removal of Inspector General Atkinson no later than April 13, 2020. Please also provide your views on how the appointment of an acting official prior to the end of the 30 day notice period comports with statutory requirements.

Sincerely,

[1] Sonam Sheth and Charles Davis, Trump Fired the Intelligence Community Official Who Told Congress About the Ukraine Whistleblower Complaint, Business Insider, (April 4, 2020) available at https://www.businessinsider.com.au/trump-fires-intelligence-official-who-handled-whistleblower-complaint-2020-4.
[2] H.R. 2701, 111th Cong. (2010) (enacted).
[3] 50 U.S.C. § 3033(c)(4) (stating that, “The [Intelligence Community] Inspector General may be removed from office only by the President. The President shall communicate in writing to the congressional intelligence committees the reasons for the removal not later than 30 days prior to the effective date of such removal”).
[4] Letter from Donald Trump, President of the United States, to Senate Committee on Intelligence (April 3, 2020); see also Letter from Barack Obama, President of the United States, to the President of the Senate (June 11, 2009).
[5] See Supra note1.
[6] S. Rep. No. 110-262 at 8 (2008)(reporting on S.2324).
[7] Id.
[8] Letter from Charles Grassley, United States Senator, to Barack Obama, President of the United States (June 11, 2009); Letter from Joseph Lieberman, Susan Collins, et al, Chairman and Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, to Barack Obama, President of the United States (June 19, 2009); see also Josh Gerstein, W.H.: Fired IG ‘confused, disoriented’, Politico, (June 16, 2009),available at https://www.politico.com/story/2009/06/ wh-fired-ig-confused-disoriented-023831.
[9] Joint Staff Report of S. Comm. on Fin. and H. Comm. on Oversight and Government Reform, 111th Cong., The Firing of the Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service, at 47 (Comm. Print 2009).
[10] see Supra note 4 at 5 (stating that, “[w]hile we hope that this advance notice will encourage useful communication between Congress and the Executive Branch on IG performance and serve as an effective deterrent against improper terminations, we note that the provision does not alter the President’s ultimate authorities with respect to Executive Branch employees”); see also Supra Note 9 at 46.
-30-

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Appendix: Statement from Michael Atkinson sent to multiple news media on April 5

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