Trump Effectively Ousts Top Watchdog for $2 Trillion Coronavirus Relief

WASHINGTON — President Trump moved on Tuesday to oust the leader of a new panel of watchdogs charged with overseeing how his administration spends trillions of taxpayer dollars in coronavirus pandemic relief, in the latest step in an abruptly unfolding White House power play over semi-independent inspectors general across the government.

The official, Glenn A. Fine, has been the acting inspector general for the Defense Department since before Mr. Trump took office. Last week, an umbrella group of agency inspectors general across the executive branch named him the chairman of a new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee with control of an $80 million budget to police how the government carries out the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

But Mr. Trump has now abruptly named a different federal official — Sean O’Donnell, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general — to be the acting inspector general for the Defense Department.

The move effectively ousted Mr. Fine from his role overseeing pandemic spending as well. Mr. Fine is a former Justice Department inspector general who earned a reputation for aggression and independence in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a statement, Dwrena K. Allen, a spokeswoman for the office of the inspector general at the Pentagon, said Mr. Trump designated Mr. O’Donnell to simultaneously serve as the acting leader of the office on Monday in addition to his duties at the E.P.A.

“Mr. Fine is no longer on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee,” she said.

The committee consists of nine inspectors general from across the executive branch. Congress created it as part of the coronavirus relief bill. Mr. Fine had been selected to lead it by a larger group of inspectors general that is chaired by Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general.

Democrats immediately condemned Mr. Fine’s sudden removal from that role.

“This is a major problem,” Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee, said on Tuesday. “Trump wants sycophants. This leads to another epidemic: incompetence.”

And Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, the chairwoman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, blasted Mr. Trump’s actions as “a direct insult to the American taxpayers — of all political stripes — who want to make sure that their tax dollars are not squandered on wasteful boondoggles, incompetence, or political favors.”

Mr. O’Brien is also known as an aggressive inspector general who is not afraid to to anger political appointees. He has issued reports that are critical of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump appointee who leads it, Andrew Wheeler, who has sought to limit Mr. O’Brien’s authority and oversight.

Mr. O’Brien’s replacement of Mr. Fine, who remains the No. 2 official at the Pentagon watchdog office, does not mean that Mr. O’Brien becomes the chairman of the pandemic oversight efforts. The larger group of inspectors general will now need to decide who to select for that position.

Last week, in announcing Mr. Fine’s short-lived role, Mr. Horowitz had praised him as “uniquely qualified” to run the oversight effort, citing his 11 years as the top Justice Department watchdog and his four years as the top Pentagon one.

“The inspector general community recognizes the need for transparency surrounding, and strong and effective independent oversight of, the federal government’s spending in response to this public health crisis,” Mr. Horowitz said at the time.

Late last month, several hours after Mr. Trump signed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus bill with fanfare on television, he issued a signing statement challenging a key safeguard congressional Democrats insisted upon as a condition of approving $500 billion in corporate bailout funds: that an inspector general be empowered to demand information about how the Treasury Department spends the money and who would be required to tell Congress if executive branch officials unreasonably balk.

In his signing statement, Mr. Trump effectively declared that he could control what information goes to Congress about any disputes over access to information about how and why the money is spent.

Then late on Friday night, Mr. Trump fired the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael K. Atkinson, whose insistence on telling Congress about a whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine triggered impeachment proceedings last fall. Circumventing a law that requires 30-day notice to Congress before that official can be removed, he also placed Mr. Atkinson on immediate administrative leave.

At the same time, Mr. Trump also announced a slew of inspector general nominees, including a White House aide, Brian D. Miller, to be the watchdog over how the Treasury Department spends $500 billion in corporate relief, and Jason Abend, a Customs and Border Protection official, as the new Defense Department inspector general.

However, the Senate would need to confirm Mr. Abend before he could supplant Mr. Fine. While Mr. Trump’s latest move to install Mr. O’Brien as acting inspector general in the meantime left Mr. Fine in place as the No. 2 in the Pentagon’s inspector general office, it effectively sidelined him from running coronavirus spending oversight immediately.

Mr. Trump also redoubled his attacks on Tuesday on the acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi A. Grimm, in a statement on Twitter a day after she released a report about hospitals facing severe shortages in tests as they battle the pandemic.

A day earlier, Mr. Trump had suggested that Ms. Grimm’s report was politically biased against him. Ms. Grimm is a career official who began work at the inspector general office late in the Clinton administration and stayed there throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, taking over the role of acting inspector general in an interim capacity this year.

“President Trump has been engaged in an assault against independent inspectors general since last Friday in order to undermine oversight of his chaotic and deficient response to the coronavirus crisis,” Ms. Maloney said, accusing the president of “a blatant attempt to degrade the independence of inspectors general who serve as checks against waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Coral Davenport, Nicholas Fandos and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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