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Trump removes internal watchdog tasked with overseeing coronavirus relief funds

Memo warned White House about coronavirus

Washington — President Trump has removed the acting inspector general tasked with overseeing more than $2.2 trillion in spending included in the coronavirus relief package approved by Congress, his latest move to reshuffle internal watchdogs at agencies across the government. 

On Monday, the president removed Glenn Fine from his position as the acting inspector general at the Pentagon, effectively ousting him from his role as head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PARC). The panel is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the relief bill, known as the CARES Act.

A spokesperson for the Pentagon Office of Inspector General confirmed the president on Monday designated Sean O'Donnell, the newly minted inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to serve as acting Department of Defense inspector general in addition to his EPA duties.

Fine, no longer a member of the PARC, will return to being the Pentagon's principal deputy inspector general. Meanwhile, the president nominated Jason Abend to be the Pentagon's permanent inspector general, pending confirmation by the Senate. 

Then-Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on October 3, 2008, in Washington.
Then-Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on October 3, 2008, in Washington. Getty

It isn't immediately clear who will lead the PARC, a position that by law must be filled by a current inspector general. That decision is left to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an independent group of current inspectors general and led by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

The EPA's Office of Inspector General confirmed the moves in a statement on Tuesday, and noted that O'Donnell will be a member of the PARC, given his role as the new Pentagon IG.

Democrats in Congress, concerned about the potential for wasteful spending and funding that might benefit those close to the president, have insisted they will do what they can to conduct oversight of the trillions in spending. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reacted with outrage to the president's decision to remove Fine, saying the move "only strengthens Democrats' resolve to hold the administration accountable and enforce the multiple strict oversight provisions of the CARES Act."

"President Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight," Schumer said in a statement.

Mr. Trump has expressed a particular irritation, if not outright ire, with inspectors general as of late, scoffing at the mere title in Monday night's White House briefing. He ousted the inspector general for the intelligence committee late Friday, citing a lack of confidence, a move that elicited intense criticism. Inspectors general are independent internal watchdogs, typically appointed by the president, and tasked with ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse within their respective federal agencies.

In Monday night's briefing, the president berated a reporter who asked about a report by the Health and Human Services inspector general. Based on a survey of 300 U.S. hospitals, the report detailed a severe shortage of tests and personal protective equipment for those on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus. 

"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," a visibly frustrated president said in the White House briefing room. 

The president later blasted the report on Twitter, comparing it to the Russia "dossier" that plagued an earlier part of his presidency.

"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!" Mr. Trump wrote Tuesday morning.

Caroline Linton and Kristin Brown contributed to this report.

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