Trump removes top coronavirus watchdog, widens attack on inspectors general


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump removed the inspector general who was to oversee the government’s $2.3 trillion coronavirus response, a spokeswoman for the official’s office said on Tuesday, fueling concerns in Congress about oversight of the relief package.

It was the Republican president’s most recent broadside against the federal watchdogs who seek to root out government waste, fraud and abuse following his removal on Friday of the intelligence community’s IG and his sharp criticism of the one who oversees the Department of Health and Human Services.

Glenn Fine, acting Defense Department inspector general, was named last week to chair a committee acting as a sort of uber-watchdog over the federal government’s response to the new coronavirus, including health policy and the largest economic relief package in U.S. history.

But Trump has since designated the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general to be the new acting Pentagon IG, a spokeswoman said, meaning Fine is not eligible for the role overseeing the coronavirus package, known as the Cares Act.

Politico first reported Fine’s ouster, saying he would resume his post as the Pentagon’s principal deputy inspector general.

Congressional Democrats said Fine’s removal, less than a week after his appointment, reinforced their determination to strictly oversee the massive spending package passed last month to prop up the economy as the country grapples with the disease.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “part of a disturbing pattern of retaliation” by Trump.

“We will continue to exercise our oversight to ensure that this historic investment of taxpayer dollars is being used wisely and efficiently,” she said in a statement.

Trump largely shrugged off a question about Fine’s removal, saying it was his prerogative, that he had recently nominated a number of people to serve as agency IGs and suggesting he was removing those appointed under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

“We have a lot of IGs in from the Obama era. And, as you know, it’s a presidential decision,” Trump told reporters.

The fiscal stimulus bill is unleashing a flood of money for families and businesses, and has created three watchdog groups consisting of federal officials and lawmakers. Pelosi announced a fourth oversight body, a select House committee, last week.

On Friday, the White House said Trump intended to nominate Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser at the Customs and Border Protection office, to be inspector general at the Pentagon.

It also said Trump planned to nominate Brian Miller, a White House lawyer and former General Services Administration IG, to be special inspector general for pandemic recovery, responsible for overseeing the Treasury Department’s handling of funds.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Makini Brice; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney