Election 2020 Politics

Trump is allergic to independent oversight. The inspectors must be protected.

It’s the most aggressive IG purge in four decades, another indication of Trump’s allergic reaction to independent oversight. His moves have generated calls for greater protection from presidential interference for the inspectors, who lead teams of auditors and investigators in federal agencies.

Current law “is a weak statute with very little incentive for presidents to do the right thing,” said Paul C. Light, a New York University public service professor who has studied inspectors general. Presidents are required to tell Congress 30 days in advance of firing an IG, but Light calls that “pretty thin gruel.”

The five inspectors who have lost their jobs or certain duties under suspicious circumstances are:

● Michael Atkinson, former intelligence community inspector general, was fired on April 3. He forwarded to Congress the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.

● Glenn Fine, former acting Defense Department inspector general, was removed from that leadership role on April 7, while being allowed to remain with the office. After Fine was selected to chair the council of inspectors general who will oversee the government’s pandemic response, Trump replaced him with another acting IG, leaving Fine ineligible to lead the oversight panel.

● Christi Grimm is the Department of Health and Human Services’s principal deputy inspector general. On May 1, Trump nominated a permanent replacement overseeing her after her office released a report citing serious shortages of supplies needed in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

● Steve Linick was fired as the State Department’s inspector general on May 15. Last year, he sent Congress a report about politically motivated mistreatment of employees who were accused of being disloyal to the Trump administration. He also gave Congress information related to the president’s impeachment.

● Mitch Behm was removed on May 15 as acting Transportation Department inspector general, though he will remain with the office. A letter from House Democrats to Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao noted that the agency’s IG office was probing her “possible conflicts of interest” regarding “preferential treatment to Kentucky, where your husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is seeking reelection.”

Trump’s IG offensive leaves “our constitutional system . . . hanging in the balance,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which tracks IG vacancies. Last month, POGO led a letter to congressional leaders from 34 organizations expressing “grave and urgent concern for the independence of federal inspectors general.”

Trump’s moves are the most aggressive presidential assault on IGs since 1981, when Ronald Reagan got rid of 12 at once but hired some back after an outcry. Barack Obama fired one IG over eight years, and George W. Bush forced two to resign.

The 75 IGs are located within agencies and have a statutory level of independence needed to probe waste, fraud and abuse, including among top executives. Generally, they can dismissed at will. So, what can be done when a president dumps inspectors whose probes could embarrass his administration?

Nothing of consequence.

Members of Congress can send letters, issue statements and hold hearings. But Trump largely ignores them, because the law gives him the power to jettison IGs — even for dubious reasons — without meaningful repercussions.

There are ways to maintain a president’s power to hire and fire while providing inspectors greater protection from improper interference.

Defined terms is one way. Under legislation sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), inspectors general would have seven-year terms. Presidents could fire them only for specific causes, including “permanent incapacity, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance, or conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.”

The U.S. comptroller general has a 15-year term and may be removed through an impeachment process or a joint congressional resolution, with a hearing, for certain causes.

Norman J. Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute political scientist, suggested presidents nominate inspectors from a list of candidates submitted by a panel of experts such as current or former inspectors. While Ornstein is critical of Trump’s dealings with IGs, he also blamed the Republican controlled Senate for not conducting better oversight of “a president who sees any independent ability to maintain integrity in government as a direct affront to him.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) is one Republican who has questioned the president’s actions against IGs, but with little result. On Monday, following Linick’s removal, he told Trump — again — that his weak reasons for dismissing IGs don’t meet the test the law requires.

“As mentioned in previous letters, Congress’s intent is clear that an expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the IG Reform Act,” Grassley said in a letter to the White House.

He wrote a similar letter when Atkinson was fired, asking Trump for a reply by April 13. Six weeks later, Grassley still waits for the president’s answer, confirming Light’s “thin gruel.”

So, where does that leave us?

“I think you’re going to have a harder time recruiting the best people if they know that when they come out with hard-hitting, aggressive findings . . . there’s no compunction about removing them from office,” said I. Charles McCullough III, a former intelligence community IG. Will inspectors “be aggressive with their findings and their reporting and their disclosures,” he asked, “or is some of that going to be tempered?”

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