It’s the President’s Prerogative to Name a COVID-19 Spending Watchdog He Trusts

President Donald Trump speaks on the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the White House, February 29, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)Another media non-story shows the double standard of presidential appointments for Republicans vs. Democrats.

And now, the latest melodrama: Media shrieking over President Trump’s removal of an Obama holdover who had been designated to be the inspector general overseeing the gargantuan spending authorized by the coronavirus relief legislation.

That official, Glenn Fine, a longtime Democratic favorite, is currently working in the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The $2 trillion bill signed by the president in March creates an $80 million fiefdom known as the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The PRAC will audit government spending. By law, its chairman must be an inspector general or acting inspector general of one of the executive branch departments or agencies. Up until Tuesday, Fine had been DoD’s acting inspector general, a position he assumed during the Obama administration.

Last week, what the New York Times describes as “an umbrella group of agency inspectors general across the executive branch” got together and named Fine to be the PRAC’s chairman. On Tuesday, however, President Trump pushed Fine out as acting IG. That renders him ineligible for the PRAC post.

The president did this by replacing Fine at DoD with Sean O’Donnell, who is currently the Environmental Protection Agency’s IG. Trump also nominated Jason Abend to become DoD’s IG. Pending Abend’s confirmation, O’Donnell will be DoD’s acting IG while continuing to wear his EPA IG hat. Meanwhile, if Fine chooses to stay in government, he will revert to his former position as DoD’s deputy IG. That is the job in which President Obama installed him in 2015. Fine became DoD’s acting IG the next year, but he was never confirmed.

A Pentagon spokeswoman curtly announced, “Mr. Fine is no longer on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.”

Upon taking office in 1993, President Clinton famously fired Republican appointees throughout the executive branch, including nearly every district U.S. attorney. By contrast, on his way out the door eight years later, he shrewdly installed Fine as the Justice Department’s inspector general.

In doing so, Clinton banked on his Republican successor’s inclination to extend a bipartisan olive branch after the historically contentious 2000 election. President Bush did not disappoint, keeping Fine rather than nominating his own DOJ IG. Predictably, Fine was a thorn in the Bush administration’s side, aggressively investigating DOJ’s use of post-9/11 counterterrorism laws and helping inflate Bush’s entirely lawful firing of a handful of U.S. attorneys into a scandal that ultimately forced attorney general Alberto Gonzalez to resign. Fine was kept on at DOJ through the first two years of the Obama administration. You’ll be stunned, I’m sure, to hear that he won gushing praise from such partisan Democrats as senator Pat Leahy and Obama attorney general Eric Holder when he finally left the government’s employ in late 2010.

He was not gone for long. As detailed above, President Obama recruited Fine for DoD in 2015. He has been in the IG’s office there ever since.

This is the way this game works. Democratic administrations come into office and exploit the patronage (as they are entitled to do), sweeping out Republicans and getting their own people in place. The press reliably describes this as a much-needed injection of new progressive blood in the government’s veins. By contrast, when Republican presidents remove Democratic appointees, journalists wail about the invasion of “loyalists” and wistfully recall a noble bipartisan past, when new presidents retained the much-needed expertise of “non-partisan” (ahem) bureaucrats.

Trump’s removal of Fine from the PRAC is being folded into a new narrative: President Trump’s jihad against “government watchdogs.” The storyline prominently includes the president’s firing of the Intelligence Community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson. But that is a special case, involving an official who was entangled in the impeachment fiasco. Atkinson’s handling of the so-called whistleblower complaint and his later congressional testimony about it have raised questions that remain unanswered. Moreover, his interpretation of the controlling statute was not as uncontroversial as the media and Democrats intimate (it was plainly wrong, in my view). It would be good to have more facts, but Atkinson served at the pleasure of the president, and Trump was within his rights to remove him.

The president added fuel to the fire at Monday’s coronavirus press conference with an outburst against the acting IG of the Health and Human Services Department. Christi A. Grimm, the acting IG, was not referred to by name during Trump’s angry exchanges with two reporters. But she was made central to the exchanges, which involved an HHS IG report about blatant government failures in coronavirus testing, particularly at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Unaware of the details of the report, which did not criticize the Trump administration, the president intimated that Grimm must be a partisan Obama plant. Actually, she is a 20-year HHS official, promoted up the ranks under administrations of both parties.

The president remains impetuous and unapologetic. In response, Democrats and their media allies are sure to spend the next week or three haranguing the country about the critical importance and non-partisan scrupulousness of inspectors general, in much the same way “the Resistance” lionized federal bureaucrats throughout the Mueller probe and the Ukraine kerfuffle. Why not? It is a more promising angle than another of this week’s TDS outbreaks: We’re to believe that Trump is touting hydroxychloroquine as an off-brand therapeutic against COVID-19 not because he wants to save lives, but because he has a small financial interest in a French pharmaceutical company that makes the anti-malarial drug.

The crazy is ratcheting up because the November election looms. The pandemic has relegated the Biden campaign to incoherent blather broadcast from the candidate’s basement. But the show must go on. The Democrats’ election theme is “Trump is incorrigibly corrupt.” If propping up that theme requires portraying the president as warring against watchdogs, or self-dealing on medications, then that’s what they’ll do.

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