Inspectors General Drain the Swamp. So Why is Trump Firing Them?
Suddenly watchdogs charged with investigating government waste, fraud and abuse are on the chopping block.
It’s a bad time to be a federal watchdog charged with investigating and reporting government waste, fraud and abuse. Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump fired Michael Atkinson from his post as inspector general of the intelligence community; last week, acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine was removed from his post overseeing $2 trillion in new coronavirus spending.
Trump said he “wants his own people in those positions now” and would be firing IGs appointed by either President Obama or a previous administration. During his Tuesday briefing Trump said he had “put in seven names.” Former Trump administration aide Cliff Sims said Trump shouldn’t “be subjected to his political enemies in supposedly apolitical oversight roles.”
But government watchdogs are raising the alarm that these firings represent an improper politicization of an office charged with rooting out government waste at abuse at a time of unprecedented Federal spending.
“To transparency advocates of any ideology, Trump’s actions should be troubling. Inspectors general should be a vital part of Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp’ that he repeated on the campaign trail in 2016,” writes Jonathan Bydlak, director of the Fiscal and Budget Policy Project at the conservative R Street Institute. “Spending on inspectors general just might be the best regular investment our government makes. They ensure that government is accountable to its citizens and that taxpayer money is not wasted.”
And here’s Republican Senator Grassley on the vital role inspectors general play, writing in 2015:
Inspectors General can make all the difference when it comes to creating a better government, but Congress needs to ensure that IGs have access to all the information they need to do their job effectively. Federal agencies have begun to unreasonably challenge IGs’ statutory right to access agency data in attempts to prevent embarrassing events from coming to light…. In order to serve as the eyes and ears of Congress, an IG office must have an unrestricted view of the agency it oversees.
But that was when Obama was president.
Back then, Republicans in Congress used IGs to investigate all sorts of government waste and abuse. The work of inspectors general constitutes the backbone of reports like Federal Fumbles: Ways the federal government dropped the ball, a report which details $383 billion in wasteful and inefficient federal spending. If IG recommendations were followed each year, the country would net $50 billion in savings. A recent Congressional report found that every dollar spent on inspectors general returns more than $22 in potential savings. In his book, Deep State, former Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Jason Chaffetz details how he used IG reports to uncover serious wrongdoing in many departments of the Obama administration including the IRS, the EPA, the DOJ, and the Department of State.
Critically, it was the work of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) that led to the infuriating revelations of the Afghanistan Papers, a trove of interviews with over 600 people with firsthand knowledge of the war, including generals, diplomats, aid workers, and Afghan officials detailing unconscionable lies, spin, and over a trillion dollars wasted with no strategy at all. All of this would have been lost to history without the work of the inspector general, Bydlak points out.
So what’s Trump’s beef?
According to sources within the Trump administration, the president may feel that inspector generals appointed by other presidents are insufficiently loyal to him. Most IGs have served for both Democratic and Republican administrations, and the office is considered a non-partisan one.
The Trump administration has shown it knows how to use IG reports for its own purposes too—as they did when a series of four inspectors general reports highlighted FISA abuse under the Obama administration that targeted the Trump campaign.
Other clues to Trump’s motivations here lie in the specific positions he’s targeting.
Canned intelligence inspector general Michael Atkinson handled the whistleblower report which ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment. His firing was “delayed retaliatory action” for Atkinson’s “proper handling of a whistleblower complaint,” said Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who represented the Ukraine whistleblower. “This action is disgraceful and undermines the integrity of the whistleblower system.”
Some inspectors general, such as the heads of agencies like the Department of Labor and the CIA, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Others are chosen by their respective agency heads. Trump has the authority to remove Presidentially appointed IGs, like the ones he fired, but he is required to notify Congress of their termination, removal, or reassignment.
Trump’s announcement that he planned to remove seven IGs came after he appeared caught off guard in a press conference Monday when questioned about a report from Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm that detailed national medical supply issues and widespread coronavirus testing delays. The HHS inspector general’s report found “severe” test shortages at hospitals and “widespread” shortages of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
“Where did he come from, the inspector general?” Trump asked reporters, repeatedly questioning, “What’s his name?”
He then attacked her by tweet Tuesday and said she had “spent 8 years with the Obama Administration,” while leaving out that she has held federal watchdog positions since 1999, in Democratic and Republican administrations.
But that’s not all.
Recently removed acting inspector general Glenn Fine would have had the authority to conduct multiple layers of oversight over a panel of inspectors general charged with investigating any aspect of the implementation of the $2 trillion in new coronavirus spending. This oversight position was a legislative compromise with Democrats, after the first draft of the coronavirus spending bill empowered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to withhold information about who received loans from the $500 billion Exchange Stabilization Fund for six months. Democrats charged that amounted to a “slush fund” for corporations, and they withheld approval from the bill until Mnuchin agreed that there would be “strict oversight”—from the panel of IGs.
The Trump administration didn’t give a reason for removing Fine, beyond this curt statement from Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon inspector general’s office.
“Mr. Fine is no longer on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee,” said Allen. EPA inspector general Sean O’Donnell will fill Fine’s position in addition to his other responsibilities.
Trump has also nominated a White House counselor, Brian Miller, to serve as the special inspector general for pandemic recovery. The new position, created by the coronavirus relief bill, tracks loans, loan guarantees and other expenditures made by the Department of the Treasury.
The axing of watchdogs and replacement with Trump loyalists begs several questions: will Congress act to prevent the politicization of the inspector general positions? And, will the American public hold Trump accountable on his promise to drain the swamp?