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Grassley’s latest stand on inspector general removals not his first

The Iowa senator also pushed the Obama and Trump administrations over previous ousters

Grassley’s latest stand on inspector general removals not his first

Chuck Grassley (Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)

In a bid to get answers on the handful of inspectors general President Donald Trump has recently fired or demoted, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, upped his pressure on the administration last week by announcing a block of two of the president’s executive nominees. 

It’s not the first time Grassley has wielded holds to get what he wants from the administration.

The nominations under blockade are Christopher Miller, who would be the National Counterterrorism Center director, and Marshall Billingslea, who would serve as undersecretary for arms control and international security at the Department of State. Grassley’s announcement means he will object to any Senate leadership effort to confirm the nominees quickly and unanimously until he gets an explanation on the firings of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson and State Department inspector general Steve Linick. 

Holds of any kind are only effective to the extent that party leaders choose to honor them, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. But Grassley’s standing in the Senate makes it unlikely that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will attempt to move forward, analysts said. That leaves the ball in the Trump administration’s court.

“When the longest serving Republican in the Senate and a very powerful chairman says, ‘I don’t want anything to happen till I get an explanation for all these firings,’ McConnell is going to respect that,” Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, told me.

Like other political appointees, inspectors general serve at the president’s pleasure. But unlike other political appointees, their role historically has been nonpartisan. They internally monitor federal agencies and investigate potential cases of fraud, wrongdoing, and waste. IGs can be crucial for lawmakers getting answers on inquiries and investigations of the executive branch.

Grassley warned that without an explanation from the White House, the dismissals of Atkinson and Linick indicate “political or self-interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.”

Jose Luis Magana/AP

Michael Atkinson (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Trump has fired or sidelined five federal agency watchdogs this spring: On April 3, Trump ordered Atkinson’s removal. Atkinson had informed Congress of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives. Days later, Trump removed acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine, whom Congress had tasked with overseeing the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. On May 1, Trump replaced Department of Health and Human Services inspector general Christi Grimm, who had released a report calling attention to hospital supply shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also replaced Mitch Behm, acting IG of the Department of Transportation, on May 15. 

After Atkinson’s firing, Grassley and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers on April 8 sent a letter asking for answers. Trump said that Atkinson did a “terrible job” and that he inappropriately handled the Ukraine whistleblower complaint.

But Linick’s ouster on May 15 raised the most eyebrows. He had been investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for authorizing arms sales to Saudi Arabia over Congress’ objections and for allegations that he and his wife asked a political appointee to run personal errands.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Steve Linick (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Congressional Democrats also opened an investigation into the Linick firing. In a May 18 letter, Grassley insisted on a response from the White House about Atkinson and Linick’s removals no later than June 1. 

The White House responded the next week, but the letter did not satisfy Grassley. While White House counsel Pat Cipollone asserted the president’s constitutional authority to remove an IG, he did not outline reasons other than to note that Trump no longer had the “fullest confidence” in them.

Under the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act, the president must give Congress a “detailed written explanation” for an IG’s dismissal 30 days before the firing is effective.

“All I want is a reason 4 firing these ppl,” Grassley tweeted last week when announcing his hold. “CHECKS&BALANCES.”

He also noted that President Barack Obama also “got [the] same earful from me,” after he “flout[ed] the IG protection law.” 

“It really isn’t Grassley versus Obama or Grassley versus Trump or Grassley versus Bush or even going back to Reagan,” Grassley told The Washington Post. “It’s Article I of the Constitution versus Article II of the Constitution.” 

Many on Capitol Hill refer to a hold as a “silent filibuster.” Senate leadership usually honors a hold request because battling it exhausts valuable floor time. And in this case it could alienate a political ally.

“Sen. Grassley has less to lose than some of the other Republicans in the Senate,” Amy Black, a political science professor at Wheaton College, said in an email. She noted Grassley is popular in his home state and doesn’t face reelection until 2022. “He has political capital that he can spend on issues that matter to him, and this is clearly one of those.”

Grassley has successfully used holds in the past. He only recently lifted a nearly two-year hold on William Evanina’s nomination to serve as counterintelligence chief. He placed the hold in June 2018 after the Department of Justice refused to hand over documents for a probe on the Trump campaign and Russia. After Attorney General William Barr gave Grassley the documents, he lifted it.

“Let this also be a reminder that when it comes to congressional oversight, I will use all the tools at my disposal to get to the truth of the matter and get access to the records that I believe are necessary to advance my investigations,” Grassley said after lifting the hold.

Only three presidents have fired IGs, according to the Congressional Research Service. Grassley was in the Senate throughout.

Iowans elected Grassley in 1981, the same year President Ronald Reagan removed all 15 IGs in the executive branch upon taking office. After congressional uproar, he reinstated five. In 2009, President Barack Obama removed inspector general Gerald Walpin, of the Corporation for National and Community Service. A bipartisan, bicameral congressional investigation concluded the administration did not afford Walpin due process. Investigators also said Walpin’s removal looked political.

Obama did not reinstate Walpin, but the investigation became a black eye for the administration.

“Most presidents of both parties understand there are some positions you do not want to politicize. It’ll cost the public to lose confidence in the fairness of our criminal justice system,” David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico under the Bush administration, told me.

Iglesias was one of the seven U.S. attorneys the George W. Bush administration fired on a single day in 2006. It became a scandal and ignited a congressional inquiry over whether political motivations spurred the move. Iglesias eventually received an apology letter from former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

“I don’t anticipate you’re going to see a similar letter from the Trump administration,” Iglesias said.

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.

Comments

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 02:21 pm

    An apology letter from the Trump administration? Perhaps, but it's reasonable to doubt that would come from Trump himself.

    Although it's difficult not to grow entirely jaded by the whole political process in this country, it is refreshing to see Grassley take at least this stand. One could wish that the entire Republican party would hold Trump's feet to the fire. And why don't they? Because way too many are afraid of losing their status of privilege with the administration. 

    That's what government looks like these days. And, it wouldn't look much different if a Democrat was in the Oval Office.

    We have this situation because we tolerate this situation from our leaders.