Grassley postures but fails to use real leverage over Trump

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley’s reputation as a defender of whistleblowers and government oversight has taken a hit lately, as President Donald Trump sidelined five inspectors general over a span of two months and rebuffed the senator’s demand for an explanation.

In an escalation of sorts, Grassley announced on June 4 that he would hold up two of Trump’s nominees until the White House complies with federal law requiring that the president explain in writing why he removed inspectors general.

The senator might have some leverage if he were willing to block high-priority nominees for the administration. But the opposite is true. The same day Grassley took a stand on inspectors general, he and Iowa’s Senator Joni Ernst advanced yet another unqualified judicial nominee.

In a written statement, Grassley announced he “will not consider the nomination of Christopher C. Miller to be the director of the National Counterterrorism Center until the White House explains why Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson was terminated,” and “will not consider the nomination of Marshall Billingslea to be the undersecretary for arms control and international security at the State Department until sufficient reasons are provided for the termination of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.”

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here and here, both firings had the hallmarks of political retaliation. Trump himself said Atkinson “did a terrible job” by transmitting a whistleblower report to Congress that sparked last year’s impeachment inquiry. The president also admitted he had “never even heard of” Linick until Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “asked me to terminate him.” The inspector general had been investigating Pompeo’s possible misuse of official resources.

Grassley hasn’t demanded that the watchdogs to be reinstated. All he’s asking for is specific reasons they were fired. He even suggested one shortcoming in Linick’s work, in case Trump’s aides needed help finding a pretext.

However, the administration was unwilling to give Grassley any kind of cover. A five-page letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone (enclosed below) cited the president’s “constitutional right and duty” to remove an inspector general when he has lost confidence, and argued that federal law does not require a detailed explanation.

Grassley wasn’t satisfied.

“Though the Constitution gives the president the authority to manage executive branch personnel, Congress made clear that if the president is going to fire an inspector general, there ought to be a good reason for it. The White House Counsel’s response failed to address this requirement, which Congress clearly stated in statute and accompanying reports. I don’t dispute the president’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general. If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is. Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.

“Nor is placing political appointees from the overseen agency into an acting leadership position within an inspector general office acceptable, especially when those individuals are keeping their appointments at the same time. The White House Counsel’s letter does not address this glaring conflict of interest. Congress established inspectors general to serve the American people—to be independent and objective watchdogs, not agency lapdogs. That’s the only way they can help drain the swamp of waste, fraud, and abuse entrenched within unelected bureaucracies.

“I’ve made clear that acting inspectors general should not be political appointees in order to preserve the independence required of the office, and I’m working with colleagues on legislation to codify this principle.”

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank speculated,

Trump can safely stiff Grassley because he knows the senator won’t back up his words. He’ll support fig-leaf legislation (blocking political appointees from serving as acting IGs) that won’t prevent Trump from firing inspectors who hold him to account.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, could stop Trump in his tracks by blocking his nominees or threatening to discontinue his investigation, at Trump’s behest, into the Bidens.

Now Grassley is holding up two nominees. But who believes that Trump knows or cares whether his picks are confirmed as director of the National Counterterrorism Center or the undersecretary for arms control and international security? Anyway, those officials could be replaced next year if the president loses the November election.

The senator could have flexed his muscles during a June 4 meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. One item on the agenda was Justin Walker’s nomination for a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. That court hears some of the most complex cases, and Walker is a 38-year-old with little relevant experience. In his six months as a federal judge in Kentucky, “he has presided over no trials that have gone to verdict or judgment.”

On the other hand, he’s a loyal Republican operative and longtime family friend and former intern to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Holding up Walker’s nomination would have shown Grassley was serious about blocking Trump appointees. His vote was needed: the committee advanced Walker on a 12-10 vote, with Grassley and Ernst among the twelve Republicans voting yes.

Had Grassley stopped Walker from reaching the Senate floor, maybe he would have received that explanation he was seeking from the White House.

Holding up two obscure agency appointees will accomplish little. But at least Grassley can claim he did more than “watching, weakly, as President Trump shreds [his] life’s work” as an advocate for inspectors general.

__________________
Appendix 1: June 4 news release from Senator Chuck Grassley’s office:

Grassley Blocks Nominees Pending Compliance with Inspector General Protection Statute
Jun 04, 2020
WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime advocate for government accountability and the role of inspectors general, is refusing to advance certain nominees until the White House provides adequate reasons for the termination of the Intelligence Community and State Department inspectors general. The escalation followed a recent letter from the White House Counsel, which failed to address the statutory requirement that the President provide written reasons supporting decisions to remove inspectors general.

Grassley will not consider the nomination of Christopher C. Miller to be the director of the National Counterterrorism Center until the White House explains why Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson was terminated.

Grassley also will not consider the nomination of Marshall Billingslea to be the undersecretary for arms control and international security at the State Department until sufficient reasons are provided for the termination of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.

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 in order to prevent politically-motivated terminations. Following the announced removal of the Intelligence Community Inspector General, Grassley led a bipartisan call for the president to comply with the statute’s notice requirement. He renewed the request in a follow-up letter also seeking the reasons for the announced removal of the State Department Inspector General.

Grassley entered the following statements in the congressional record announcing the holds.

Statement of Senator Charles E. Grassley
Before the United States Senate
June 4, 2020

Mr. President, I intend to object to any unanimous consent request relating to the nomination of Christopher C. Miller, of Virginia, to be Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (PN1741).

On April 8, 2020, I sent a bipartisan letter to the President cosigned by seven of my colleagues regarding the removal of Intelligence Community Inspector General (IC IG) Michael Atkinson. That letter reminded the President of his requirement under the Inspector General Reform Act to provide clear reasons for such removal. After a delay, the White House promised me a response to my letter that fulfilled the statutory requirement by providing substantive reasons for the removal. On the evening of May 26, 2020, I received a response from the White House, but it contained no explanation for the removal of the IC IG.

Though the Constitution gives the president the authority to manage executive branch personnel, Congress has made it clear that should the president find reason to fire an inspector general, there ought to be a good reason for it. The White House’s response failed to address this requirement, which Congress clearly stated in statute and accompanying reports. I don’t dispute the President’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self-interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.

Further, the White House’s response states that the President was acting in a manner that comported with the precedent that began under the Obama administration. The letter states that the President’s letter mirrors the one sent by President Obama when he removed IG Walpin. What that letter fails to mention is that President Obama, at the demand of myself and other members of this chamber, eventually did send several letters explaining in much greater detail the reasons for the removal of Mr. Walpin. They were inadequate responses that continually changed and eventually resulted in a bicameral investigation into the matter, but reasons were provided.

I have attached copies of these letters and the aforementioned report for the record. I intend to maintain this hold until the notice requirement in the Inspector General Act of 1978, 5 U.S.C. app. § 3(b) is met and the reasons for the IC IGs removal are provided.

***
Statement of Senator Charles E. Grassley
Before the United States Senate
June 4, 2020

Mr. President, I intend to object to any unanimous consent request relating to the nomination of Marshall Billingslea, of Virginia, to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, vice Andrea L. Thompson, resigned (PN1732).

Following my bipartisan letter to the president on April 8, 2020, regarding the removal of the Intelligence Community Inspector General (IC IG), I sent a separate letter to the President regarding the removal of the Department of State Inspector General (State IG). My letter echoed the IC IG letter to the President and reminded him of his requirement under the Inspector General Reform Act to provide clear reasons for removal of inspectors general. I also raised concerns regarding the inherent conflicts of interest created by naming individuals holding political positions within the overseen agency as acting inspectors general. After a delay, the White House promised me a response to both the IC IG letter and my State IG letter that fulfilled the statutory requirement by providing substantive reasons for the removal. On the evening of May 26, 2020, I received a response from the White House, but it contained no explanation for the removal of the State IG and made no comment regarding the conflicts of interest issues that I raised.

Though the Constitution gives the president the authority to manage executive branch personnel, Congress has made it clear that should the president find reason to remove an inspector general, there ought to be a good reason for it. The White House’s response failed to address this requirement, which Congress clearly stated in statute and accompanying reports. I don’t dispute the President’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self-interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability. This is only compounded when the acting IG maintains their presidentially appointed position within the overseen agency.

Further, the White House’s response states that the President was acting in a manner that comported with the precedent that began under the Obama administration. The letter states that the President’s letter mirrors the one sent by President Obama when he removed IG Walpin. What that letter fails to mention is that President Obama, at the demand of myself and other members of this chamber, eventually did send several letters explaining in much greater detail the reasons for the removal of Mr. Walpin. They were inadequate responses that continually changed and eventually resulted in a bicameral investigation into the matter, but reasons were provided.

I have attached copies of these letters and the aforementioned report for the record. I intend to maintain this hold until the notice requirement in the Inspector General Act of 1978, 5 U.S.C. app. § 3(b) is met and the reasons for the IC IGs removal are provided.

Appendix 2: May 26 letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone to Senator Grassley

Appendix 3: May 26 news release from Grassley’s office

White House Responds to Grassley Call for Details on IG Terminations
May 26, 2020
WASHINGTON – The White House Counsel’s Office today responded to Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) requests for reasons behind the termination of two inspectors general.

“Though the Constitution gives the president the authority to manage executive branch personnel, Congress made clear that if the president is going to fire an inspector general, there ought to be a good reason for it. The White House Counsel’s response failed to address this requirement, which Congress clearly stated in statute and accompanying reports. I don’t dispute the president’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general. If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is. Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.

Nor is placing political appointees from the overseen agency into an acting leadership position within an inspector general office acceptable, especially when those individuals are keeping their appointments at the same time. The White House Counsel’s letter does not address this glaring conflict of interest. Congress established inspectors general to serve the American people—to be independent and objective watchdogs, not agency lapdogs. That’s the only way they can help drain the swamp of waste, fraud, and abuse entrenched within unelected bureaucracies.

“I’ve made clear that acting inspectors general should not be political appointees in order to preserve the independence required of the office, and I’m working with colleagues on legislation to codify this principle.

“Government Accountability isn’t only a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. Inspectors general shouldn’t be politically motivated or politically targeted. And those of us in Congress have a duty to promote accountability, regardless of who is in office. Oversight’s been important in past administrations and it will continue to be in the future. I hope the new-found appreciation for inspectors general by some of my colleagues and those in the media doesn’t sunset at the end of this administration,” Grassley said.

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 in order to prevent politically-motivated terminations. Following the announced removal of the Intelligence Community Inspector General, Grassley led a bipartisan call for the president to comply with the statute’s notice requirement. He renewed the request in a follow-up letter also seeking the reasons for the announced removal of the State Department Inspector General.

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.

Top image: Chuck Grassley at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on June 3, 2020. Screen shot from the video posted on the senator’s YouTube channel.

  • Empty suit

    Enough said.

  • Holding up the Billingslea nomination has value in and of itself.

    I am quite sympathetic to the idea that Sen. Grassley is posturing on his demands for more information on the inspector generals’ dismissals and agree that he has largely been AWOL in his institutional obligation to help protect these officials from outside pressure. However, I would offer one footnote on your comment that “Holding up two obscure agency appointees will accomplish little.” As Trump’s designated special envoy for nuclear arms control, Marshall Billingslea promises to do significant damage to already dim prospects for protecting the one remaining nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, the New START agreement, which expires in February 2021. The administration’s hostility to arms control has been evident long before Billingslea was named to be the principal interlocutor with Russia on this subject, but he has recently made his potential for sabotaging negotiations evident in publicly threatening Russia and China with an arms race “to spend them into oblivion.” Every week when this man cannot boast Senate confirmation has value in limiting the damage he does to our national interest..

  • After feigning irritation

    at Herb’s “assistant gravedigger” of democracy letter, what more can a “made man” in a criminal organization masquerading as a political party do to take the act to a far wider audience? Well, this was something. Selfless teamwork, Chuck.

    Thought number two, after a very late lunch and beers: I have a love/hate reading relationship with George Will. His words published June 1 strike a bell, a chord, a drum, a song fitting for a funeral pyre:

    “Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for . . . what? Praying people should pray, and all others should hope: May I never crave anything as much as these people crave membership in the world’s most risible deliberative body.”

    Third and final thought, because it has bugged me since the election: I permitted myself an error in judgement about Chuck early on, thinking that given he was close enough in age to the greatest generation who learned the lessons of the pathology of mind that brought about WWII, that when push came to shove, he might be able to do the right thing about our problem. I was wrong. It is not in him. Yes, this is posturing.

You need to signin or signup to post a comment.