It was about a month ago when the inspector general's office for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a rather brutal report, pointing to U.S. hospitals facing dire shortages of vital medical supplies. The document was based on extensive interviews with medical facilities nationwide.
As we discussed at the time, 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 came up with inspectors general in the first place: they do independent reviews, identify problems, and offer policymakers an opportunity to address them.
But given a choice between acting on independent findings and targeting the official who identified the problem, Donald Trump made a predictable and misguided choice. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
President Trump moved on Friday night to replace a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services who angered him with a report last month highlighting supply shortages and testing delays at hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. The White House waited until after business hours to announce the nomination of a new inspector general for the department who, if confirmed, would take over for Christi A. Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general [at HHS].
The president and his team sure do love Friday night news dumps, don't they?
To the extent that the White House has made a case against Christi Grimm, Trump has argued that she was at her post during the Obama administration, which in his mind, necessarily discredits her work. In reality, Grimm worked in the IG's office for a couple of decades -- including eight years in the Bush/Cheney administration -- and there's literally nothing to suggest that the HHS report was inaccurate or manipulated for political reasons.
Trump also lashed out at Grimm for not having done a review of the federal response to H1N1 virus, though reality soon after reared its head again: 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 his tantrum.
But let's also not lose sight of the larger pattern. Late on a Friday in early April, Trump fired the IG for the intelligence community. A few days later, the Republican ousted the IG helping oversee the $2.2 trillion economic aid initiative. Now, yet another inspector general has been shown the door -- not for poor performance, but for having the audacity to do her job properly and present the administration with information the president found politically inconvenient.
The New York Times recently reported that 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."
Simultaneously, the president is sending a signal to every other inspector general throughout the executive branch: 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.
Postscript: Just last week, Politico reported, "President Donald Trump’s recent hostility toward independent federal watchdogs has jolted the very Senate Republicans who are among his most outspoken defenders."
Four days after the report highlighted concerns from the likes of Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the White House ousted Grimm from HHS, suggesting the president doesn't much care about GOP senators' interest in government accountability.