Trump’s war on watchdogs and what Congress can do about it
What you need to know:
Since Trump took office, he has left numerous IG posts vacant for significant periods of time, including at least 10 for more than a year. Trump has fired two permanent IGs and removed three acting IGs by other means. In their places, he has nominated or installed at least six loyalists. Trump has also appointed four IGs in dual roles, in some cases creating possible conflicts of interest. In total, we have conservatively identified 25 actions by President Trump to undermine the IG community since he took the oath of office.
Trump’s Attacks on IGs by the Numbers
President Trump has always been hostile toward oversight and accountability, and during the coronavirus crisis, Trump’s attacks on inspectors general have become both more aggressive and more frequent. His dizzying assault on independent watchdogs betrays his insecurity when faced with watchdogs whose role is to scrutinize his actions and the actions of his Cabinet members.
Since Trump took office, he has left numerous IG posts vacant for significant periods of time, including at least 10 for more than a year. Trump has fired two permanent IGs and removed three acting IGs by other means. In their places, he has nominated or installed at least six loyalists. Trump has also appointed four IGs in dual roles, in some cases creating possible conflicts of interest. In total, we have conservatively identified 25 actions by President Trump to undermine the IG community since he took the oath of office. This tally does not include his public statements to the press or on Twitter undermining IGs, which have also intensified over the past few months.
Trump’s Intensifying IG Attacks
Mar 14, 2017
Trump withdrew four of President Obama’s pending IG nominations: Acting Department of Defense IG Glenn Fine’s nomination for DOD, Elizabeth Field’s nomination for Office of Personnel Management, Michael Leary’s nomination for Social Security Administration and Robert Storch’s nomination for National Security Agency. Trump’s withdrawal of the names left the agencies without permanent IGs, some for years.
Jul 20, 2018
Trump’s poorly vetted nominee to serve as permanent Central Intelligence Agency IG was forced to withdraw after allegations of his retaliation against whistleblowers became public.
Oct 17, 2018
Secretary Ben Carson announced that a Trump political appointee at the Department of House and Urban Development with no law enforcement or auditing experience had been installed as the acting Interior IG. The appointee, Suzanne Tufts, resigned from government altogether after public uproar about this unusual and problematic choice.
Jan 31, 2019
The Trump administration attempted to replace the acting IG at the Department of Education with a lawyer from the agency. The decision was reversed after congressional and public scrutiny.
May 28, 2019
Trump appointed Gail Ennis, who was already serving as the SSA IG, to serve as the acting Interior IG at the same time.
Mar 27, 2020
Trump’s signing statement for the CARES Act suggested that he intends to gag the newly created pandemic recovery IG from communicating with Congress about administration misconduct and obstruction.
Apr 03, 2020
Trump announced his intention to fire Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson, who first alerted Congress to the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Despite the required 30-day period before Atkinson’s firing could become effective, Trump found a loophole by ordering that Atkinson be placed on administrative leave, making his removal effective immediately.
Apr 03, 2020
Trump announced his intention to nominate three political appointees as permanent IGs. He nominated White House lawyer Brian Miller, who participated in the administration’s stonewalling of the House impeachment inquiry, to serve as Special IG for Pandemic Recovery. He also nominated Katherine Crytzer, a political appointee at the Department of Justice, to serve as IG for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Jason Abend, a Trump political appointee at the Department of Homeland Security, to serve as DOD IG.
Apr 07, 2020
Trump unceremoniously demoted Glenn Fine as DOD acting IG, which also effectively removed Fine as chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Then Trump appointed EPA IG Sean O’Donnell to serve as acting DOD IG while also retaining his job as EPA’s watchdog.
May 02, 2020
Trump moved to replace Health and Human Services acting IG Christi Grimm who released a report finding “severe shortages” at hospitals combating coronavirus. Trump repeatedly personally attacked Grimm following the issuance of OIG’s report on medical supply shortages, asserting political motivations for her report.
May 03, 2020
After expiration of the statutorily required 30 day notice period, President Trump’s firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson became official.
May 15, 2020
Trump announced his intention to fire the State Department IG Steve Linick after a request from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Linick was investigating allegations of misconduct by Secretary Pompeo involving the misuse of government resources, as well as Pompeo’s role in the Trump administration’s plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval. Trump tapped a political appointee, Stephen Akard, to serve as acting IG in Linick’s absence, while also maintaining his Senate-confirmed political appointee position as the head of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, creating massive conflict of interest concerns.
May 18, 2020
Trump removed acting Department of Transportation IG Mitch Behm, who was investigating Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for favoritism benefiting her husband Senator Mitch McConnell’s political prospects. Trump replaced Behm with a political appointee, Howard “Skip” Elliott, who will now divide his time between the Office of Inspector General position and leading DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Jun 14, 2020
After expiration of the statutorily required 30 day notice period, President Trump’s firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick became official.
How To Get Congress to Fight Back and Protect IGs
Trump’s attacks on IGs are clearly escalating, but we do not have to throw up our hands and allow Trump to complete his purge of independent watchdogs. There are several bipartisan bills to protect IGs that have passed in the House and stalled in the Senate. People who are concerned about Trump’s moves to stifle scrutiny of his administration can contact their legislators and press for action.
Trillions in taxpayer funds should not be spent on the pandemic response without people in place to see that the money is going where it is most needed and that there will be accountability to ensure it. We know that oversight can work to substantially reduce fraud and waste; some estimates of what happened during the last major stimulus program after the financial crisis in 2009 suggest that oversight was the difference between 5% of funds being diverted and .001% being diverted. As the watchdogs inside the agencies that will decide where the money goes, IGs are our first line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. Before President Trump, this principle was taken for granted.
These are the reforms that would help protect IGs, and ensure that the government is accountable to the people picking up the tab:
- The Heroes Act (H.R. 6800) includes a provision that prevents a president from firing an IG for an unfair or political reason and requires that Congress be notified of the removal. It also requires IG vacancies to be filled. It passed the House May 15, 2020. So far, the Senate has taken no action.
- Inspector General Protection Act (H.R. 1847) requires IG vacancies to be filled, and Congress to be notified when IGs are removed. The bill passed the House in July 2019. It has now been nearly a year, with no action by the Senate.
- Integrity Committee Transparency Act of 2019 (H.R. 4382) would expand the power of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to provide information to Congress. It is awaiting congressional action.
- Inspectors General Independence Act (H.R. 6668/S.3664) would prevents a president from firing an IG for an unfair or political reason. It has been introduced in both the Senate and the House, but neither have taken a vote yet.
- Inspector General Independence Act (H.R. 6984) is a proposal to amend the 1978 law to require a cause for IG removal. It is awaiting action.
- S.3766 is an extremely targeted proposal to stop the president from blocking IGs from reporting to Congress about the CARES Act. No action has been taken yet.
- CORE Act (S.3855/H.R.7076) would require that IGs only be fired for good cause and require the president to inform Congress when any IG, including an acting IG, is removed from their post. The bill would also require that IG vacancies be filled automatically by the first assistant to the last IG, and that acting IGs enjoy civil service protections, ensuring that they have some recourse if they face retaliation. Any member of the staff of an unlawfully fired IG would be allowed to file suit to challenge the firing, as would any member of the public harmed as the result of such action. The president’s decision to fire or otherwise discipline an IG or acting IG would trigger an automatic, public review by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.