Why Trump targeted the HHS inspector general so aggressively

It's been a rough week for federal inspectors general, but Trump targeted one with particular ire. It's worth understanding why.
Empty hospital bed near sunny window
Empty hospital bed near sunny windowFS Productions / Getty Images

It's been a rough week for federal inspectors general. On Friday night, Donald Trump fired the IG for the intelligence community. On Monday, the president lashed out at the IG for the Department of Health and Human Services. On Tuesday, the Republican ousted the IG helping oversee the $2.2 trillion economic aid initiative.

As the New York Times reported, the White House appears to be engaged in a "power play against semi-independent inspectors general across the government," driven by the president's "impatience with independent voices within the government that he considers disloyal." The Washington Post's David Ignatius similarly called out Trump for waging "a relentless campaign -- waged even in the midst of the pandemic -- against people and institutions that can hold him accountable."

But the Republican's ire toward the HHS inspector general included an especially sharp edge. It's worth considering why.

To be sure, the inspector general's office for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a rather brutal report this week, pointing to U.S. hospitals facing dire shortages of vital medical supplies. The document was based on extensive interviews with medical facilities nationwide.

The proper White House response would've been to read the report, digest its findings, and take steps to put things right. In fact, that would be in keeping with the reason the government has inspectors general in the first place: they do independent reviews, identify problems, and offer policymakers an opportunity to address them.

Trump chose a very different course. This was his reaction to questions about the IG report on Monday:

"It's just wrong. Did I hear the word 'inspector general'? Really? It's wrong. And they'll talk to you about it. It's wrong.... Where did he come from -- the inspector general? What's his name? What's his name? What's his name? Find me his name. Let me know. Okay? If you find me his name, I'd appreciate it."

After being told that the report was prepared by a career HHS official -- who also happens to be a woman -- the president dismissed her as a veteran of the Obama administration.

To the extent that reality matters, there's literally nothing to suggest that the HHS report was inaccurate or manipulated for political reasons. What's more, the investigation was led by Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general at the department, who served eight years in the Bush/Cheney administration, eight years in the Obama administration, and three years in the Trump administration. (The idea that only Trump-appointed officials can be trusted to conduct fair probes is ridiculous.)

Nevertheless, yesterday on Twitter, the president kept the offensive going.

"Why didn't the I.G., who spent 8 years with the Obama Administration (Did she Report on the failed H1N1 Swine Flu debacle where 17,000 people died?), want to talk to the Admirals, Generals, V.P. & others in charge, before doing her report. Another Fake Dossier!"

For one thing, the HHS inspector general actually did a thorough, multi-part examination of the federal response to HIN1 -- a detail Trump probably should've looked up before launching an online tantrum.

For another, the name of this week's report was, "Hospital Experiences Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic." Talking to admirals and generals probably wasn't seen as especially relevant in this context.

Given all of this, why would the president go after the HHS inspector general twice? In part because the IG report offers powerful evidence of an important White House failure, which Trump can't let stand because he needs the public to believe the administration's response has been flawless.

And in part because the president needs to send a signal to every other inspector general: those who exercise independence should expect White House retribution. It may defy the point of having inspectors general, but Trump doesn't appear to care.