“Assuming Trump reads your stories, or somebody there reads your stories, tell them that they’ve got to deal with Chuck Grassley if they don’t treat whistleblowers right.”
That’s the message Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley wants the White House to hear. And given how important the Iowa Republican is to advancing the agenda of President Donald Trump, his words carry weight.
Much of the immediate focus on Grassley’s committee is on confirming Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general and then processing Trump’s pick of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the vacant associate justice position on the Supreme Court.
But Grassley has long been a stickler when it comes to congressional oversight, regardless of which gavel he has held, especially on the matter of protecting executive-branch whistleblowers from intimidation and retribution.
The seven-term senator was the lead GOP sponsor of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, joining with Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. And before that, he worked to establish an appropriations rider, declaring that “no money could be used to enforce any nondisclosure agreement that interferes with the right of individuals to provide information to Congress.”
The provision, sometimes known as an “anti-gag” rider, became permanent law in 2012.
Last week, Grassley joined two fellow Republicans, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Oversight Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina in penning a letter to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, highlighting legal protections for communications with the legislative branch.
“Through oversight, Congress can assist in identifying areas ripe for change as President Trump takes the reins of government. Indeed, Congress has a constitutional obligation to do so,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which is dated Feb. 1. “As a result, Congress has always safeguarded direct communications with federal employees.”
Chaffetz, Meadows and Grassley also noted that disclosures of fraud to the media are also protected by federal law, though they acknowledged the relatively new issues with government-run social media accounts at departments and agencies.
“The purpose of the letter, as I told my staff, is we want them to be alerted to the fact that they ought to be seeing whistleblowers as a positive thing,” Grassley said in a wide-ranging interview with Roll Call. “Because when you’re president of the United States and you’ve got 2 million people working under you, you can’t know what those 2 million people are. But, if you’ve got people out there that are saying people are committing fraud or are violating the law, the president of the United States ought to know it.”
Separate from that letter, Grassley always asks new presidents to host a Rose Garden ceremony honoring federal agency whistleblowers who identify fraud and abuse.
He has made the request of presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan, without success. Aides to the Judiciary chairman told Roll Call that a letter similar to the one sent to President Barack Obama in 2009 would be headed to Trump soon.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has her doubts whether the Trump administration will take heed of Grassley’s advice about protecting whistleblowers.
“It doesn’t seem likely. I think this is the president who has required more nondisclosure agreements than any president in history. They’re telling people to quit if they don’t like his policies, they are trying to clamp down on people’s dissent,” McCaskill said. “So that doesn’t seem like, to me, the values of somebody who is going to look after whistleblowers. But maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
But Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the co-chairman of the whistleblower caucus in the Senate, said he looked forward to working with Grassley on the protections.
“Certainly the president has indicated a big interest in coming up with real change, and if you look at the history of whistleblowers, this is one area where a serious effort to support whistleblowers can make a big difference,” Wyden said.
There’s also the issue of Trump transition officials reportedly having threatened to remove inspectors general from their posts, despite requirements that Congress be given 30 days notice and notice in writing of the rationale for any attempted removal.
The related requests have been rescinded, but Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland and Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, two top Democrats at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have asked McGahn to identify the parties responsible.
“If these reports are accurate, the actions by Trump administration officials demonstrate a troubling pattern of misguided and politically motivated attacks on government watchdogs, ethics officials, and career government employees,” they wrote last week. “We believe that attacks on our nation’s inspectors general are attacks on our taxpayers and their ability to hold their government accountable.”
Grassley attributed the error by the Trump transition team to a misunderstanding about the role of inspectors general and the applicable legal requirements for their removal.
“We cut that short pretty fast. There [were] three or four of them, and then they started contacting my office. We got that shut off pretty soon,” Grassley said. “We came to the conclusion that they didn’t really know about the special privilege, or special political protection, for inspectors general.”
What seems clear is that if in the Trump administration whistleblowers are not supported, and inspectors general are undermined, the White House will be hearing from Grassley.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.