Press Releases

Inspectors General Removal – Congressional Investigation

The removal of two Inspectors General by President Trump, and his suggestion that he may soon remove a third, threatens the rule of law and should be investigated by Congress, the New York City Bar Association states in a report.

On April 3, 2020, the White House announced that President Trump had removed Michael Atkinson as the Inspector General (IG) for the intelligence community, stating that Mr. Atkinson had done “a terrible job” in forwarding the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint to Congress. Three days later, the President removed Glenn Fine from his position as acting IG of the Defense Department, thereby stripping him of his appointment to chair the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), which will oversee the distribution of The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding. Both inspectors general were removed from their positions in contravention of statutory removal protections requiring that the President give Congress advance notice of, and set forth the reasons for, such removal. 

“In Atkinson’s case, the White House sent a cursory letter on April 3 stating that Atkinson would be removed without providing reasons for that removal,” the City Bar report states. And “while the letter states that Atkinson would be removed thirty days later, in fact he was relieved of his duties that very day.” In a letter dated April 8, a bipartisan group of senators led by Senator Charles Grassley requested a detailed explanation from President Trump for Atkinson’s dismissal, noting that the President’s general assertion that he had lost confidence in the IG was inadequate, further noting that Atkinson had already been “removed” by being placed on administrative leave, and asking the President to justify having violated the statutory notice provision; however, as the City Bar report states,“[t]o our knowledge, no response from the White House has been issued.”  

The City Bar report goes on to state that “[t]he recent removal of IG Fine presents different but equally serious concerns,” as “Fine’s designated role under the CARES Act was to lead part of the critical oversight and reporting on the distribution of the enormous sums at the President’s disposal as part of that Act’s economic recovery program.” Notably, Fine remains as Principal Deputy IG for DOD; thus, the only effect of the President’s action was to take Fine out of the role of PRAC chair. “Needless to say,” the City Bar states, “because Fine had not yet begun his work as PRAC chair, there cannot be good cause to remove him from this post.”

The President also has publicly indicated his displeasure with, and hinted at removing, a third IG, Christi Grimm at the Department of Health and Human Services. Grimm recently issued a report documenting significant supply shortages in some 300 hospitals as well as lengthy testing delays at those facilities. The report states, “The President used the national televised platform of his coronavirus task force briefing time to attack Grimm, suggesting that she was motivated by politics, but without pointing to anything improper or inaccurate about her reports or her conduct.”

“The President’s message to IGs Atkinson, Fine, Grimm and all other IGs in the Executive Branch is clear,” the City Bar states. “IGs now know that if they wish to keep their jobs, they must not anger or contradict the President. They must not scrutinize or report unfavorably on any Presidential action, or seek to perform their statutory duties – however grave the danger to the nation – if it will annoy the President or cast doubt on the wisdom or legality of his actions. This message, whether delivered by the President directly or by his aides, is one that seeks to muzzle the IGs in their performance of their statutory duties. It is a message that neither Congress nor the public can accept if the essential role of the federal IGs is to be preserved and Executive Branch departments and agencies are to be held accountable for their conduct.”

Congress should not stand by “while the President eviscerates the independence of IGs through improper and illegal removals,” the report states. “Congress must hold hearings to investigate the President’s attacks on and firings of IGs, including, but not limited to, IGs Atkinson, Fine, and Grimm. Integrity and accountability in the Executive Branch are too important to let the administration sweep this under the rug, especially as we embark on the largest and most complicated stimulus project in our nation’s history.”

Further, Congress should reaffirm its support for IG independence “by enacting whatever protections it finds consistent with its authority, including possible reinstatement of IGs Atkinson and Fine,” the report states. “We also urge a specific remedy to the problem identified above in the form of legislation requiring that any Presidential removal or transfer of an IG, including the placement of an IG on administrative leave, shall not take effect until 30 days after the President has notified Congress of his reasons for that action. We also recommend that the IG Act should extend the same protection against removal or transfer to anyone assigned to perform or performing the normal functions of an IG when that office is vacant.”

The report concludes: “Those whose jobs involve oversight are working in difficult and often contentious positions, and are extremely vulnerable to abuse by those who do not necessarily want these jobs done, or who do not want them done with independence and transparency. The President’s attacks on IGs are also an attack on the institutions of our government that ensure accountability of our public officials. It is important, therefore, that Congress act promptly both to reform the IG Act in the manner recommended above and to take whatever other actions Congress finds appropriate to protect IG independence.”

The full report can be read here: