HHS watchdog vows independence amid Trump actions

That backdrop informed Tuesday morning’s briefing, conducted over video with occasional glitches. “As the committee with jurisdiction over the entire IG community, it is our responsibility to protect the IGs from political interference,” Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in her opening remarks.

Meanwhile, panel Republicans took issue with the need for a briefing — saying that Grimm’s survey relied on hospital responses that are now outdated — and disputed the media coverage of Trump’s nomination of a full-time HHS inspector general. “Any allegation that Christi Grimm was fired or removed for issuing a report is simply incorrect,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have urged Trump to nominate permanent, Senate-confirmed inspectors general, warning that acting IGs — who can be replaced by the president without warning — are more susceptible to pressure and strong-arming by the agencies they’re supposed to oversee. As Grimm was testifying, another former acting IG, Glenn Fine of the Pentagon, resigned from his post, just weeks after Trump demoted him and elbowed him out of a role overseeing the federal coronavirus response.

But unlike Fine, Trump has not moved to sideline Grimm while her permanent replacement awaits confirmation. And Grimm emphasized that she has no plans to change her approach, telling members that the office has not shifted strategy since Trump nominated Jason Weida on May 1 to be the full-time HHS inspector general. Weida, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston who is awaiting confirmation, would replace Daniel Levinson, the former HHS inspector general who retired in June 2019.

However, Trump has shown he’ll move to oust Senate-confirmed inspectors general if they anger him. Trump removed intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson last month, citing Atkinson’s handling of a whistleblower complaint that fueled the House impeachment inquiry. And he booted State Department IG Steve Linick earlier this month, citing a request by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Linick was investigating.

Trump attacked both Atkinson and Linick as politically biased Obama appointees and circumvented a 30-day requirement to notify Congress by placing them on administrative leave.

Grimm on Tuesday largely steered clear of politically sensitive issues, instead using the briefing to roll out the HHS inspector general office’s four-part strategy to handle Covid-19-related audits and mentioning that “dozens” of additional topics are under discussion for future probes. She also said the administration had taken “numerous actions” to address the hospital shortages identified in the April survey.

Meanwhile, members took turns pushing Grimm to investigate potential conflicts. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called on HHS to investigate a recent ProPublica report about a former Trump White House official winning a federal contract to supply masks despite no prior contracting experience.

Republicans also pressed Grimm on whether she was investigating China and the World Health Organization’s role in the outbreak, claiming that they conspired to hide information about the virus’ threat. “Did the delay in understanding the severity of the pandemic cause a delay in the administration’s ability to respond?” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) asked.

“We do not have current work looking at that,” Grimm responded, adding that it’s a topic that would potentially be probed in the future.