Demoted HHS Watchdog Gives Careful Testimony In Dangerous Times For IGs

Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services. Courtesy HHS
|
May 26, 2020 3:49 p.m.

If House Oversight Committee Democrats were hoping for colorful quotes and angry fodder with which to investigate the Trump administration’s response to the novel coronavirus, they didn’t get them Tuesday.

Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, brought little fire to the Committee’s hearing after being replaced by Trump in early May. 

Trump was livid after Grimm’s office released a report detailing the dire shortages in personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing in hospitals, saying that the findings were politically motivated since Grimm had served during the Obama administration. She has actually worked in the apolitical IG’s office under both Republican and Democratic presidents. 

During Tuesday’s hearing, multiple Democratic lawmakers asked her questions about the “chilling” effect Trump’s spate of firings would have on the inspectors general community, and about the administration’s failings in its coronavirus response. 

On the first, she declined to speak about her personal experience, instead emphasizing the general importance of watchdogs’ independence and protection from political retaliation. 

“I view, and the community views, the independence and effectiveness of an inspector general as a key safeguard for the programs we oversee,” she said in response to Rep. Gerry Connolly’s (D-VA) question about the effect of Trump’s statements on the IG community. “It’s what allows us to bring our subjective judgment to bear on problems without worrying whether those running the programs are hearing what they want to hear.”

And on the administration’s slow and shoddy response to the pandemic — the shortcomings that left the hospitals so ill-equipped, as documented in the report that infuriated Trump — Grimm consistently avoided placing blame on the administration and repeated that things had gotten better since the report was published in April.

“Now, we believe, is not the time to be looking at issues like that,” she said to Rep. James Comer’s (R-KY) question about the Trump administration’s response. “A look back at some of the decisions and what actions were taken as result of information, that would be something that we would potentially consider down the road.” 

Grimm’s caution makes sense given her own situation. While she will no longer be spearheading the HHS’ office of the inspector general — Trump has nominated Jason Weida, an assistant United States attorney in Boston, as permanent inspector general — she’ll remain in her deputy role. 

Meanwhile, Trump has removed from leadership or fired outright five inspectors general this spring alone. Congressional committees, including Oversight, have launched investigations into the most recent firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, whose ouster seemingly has deep ties to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

And even as Grimm spoke Tuesday, Trump’s actions claimed another employee in the IG community. Glenn Fine, Grimm’s counterpart at the Pentagon who had also been abruptly replaced as acting leader, resigned after over a decade of service in inspectors general offices.  

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