White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told a top Republican senator on Tuesday that President Donald Trump acted appropriately when he fired two independent government watchdogs.
The long-awaited response, which Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) demanded after Trump fired the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department, comes after lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern with the president’s actions and asserted that he did not comply with a statute requiring a detailed explanation for those firings.
In a subsequent statement, Grassley said Cipollone’s response “failed to address” that requirement, which was codified in a 2008 law that Grassley co-authored.
“I don’t dispute the president’s authority under the Constitution, but without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general,” Grassley said. “If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is. Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame.”
Cipollone, however, focused his response on the president’s sole power to hire and fire officials within the executive branch, and said Trump “acted within his constitutional and statutory authority” when he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, and Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general.
“When the president loses confidence in an inspector general, he will exercise his constitutional right and duty to remove that officer — as did President Reagan when he removed inspectors general upon taking office and as did President Obama when he was in office,” Cipollone wrote.
Cipollone also defended the president’s decision to place Atkinson and Linick on administrative leave for 30 days. Grassley and other senators had said the move could have been an effort by the president to skirt the 30-day congressional notification requirement.
In his official notifications to Congress, Trump said only that he had lost confidence in both Atkinson and Linick — a response Grassley said was insufficient. But Cipollone argued that current law requiring such a notification “raises serious constitutional concerns.”
Cipollone also defended Trump’s replacements for each watchdog post, both of whom are serving in their roles in an acting capacity. Grassley raised concerns about this rationale in his statement, and said political appointees should not be serving in a leadership role in an inspector general’s office.
“The White House Counsel’s letter does not address this glaring conflict of interest,” Grassley said. “Congress established inspectors general to serve the American people — to be independent and objective watchdogs, not agency lapdogs.”
Grassley is crafting legislation to prevent political appointees within executive branch departments and agencies from being tapped to serve as acting inspectors general, “in order to preserve the independence required of the office.”
In the days after Trump fired Linick, it was revealed that Linick was looking into allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directed political appointees to run personal errands. Linick was also looking into the Trump administration’s sale of $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year in a way that circumvented Congress’ authority to override those sales.
Pompeo later said he made the recommendation to Trump that Linick be terminated.
Atkinson, meanwhile, had drawn the president’s ire months ago when he transferred a whistleblower complaint to the House Intelligence Committee that later became the basis for the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Democrats have raised concerns about what they view as a campaign by the president to seek revenge against those who sought to hold him accountable.