Trump and the (not so new) battle over government oversight

Why We Wrote This

Checks and balances: Everybody wants accountability in government. Except, at times, those governing. President Trump’s targeting of inspectors general is one more example of why oversight has become harder.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
Then-State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs after briefing House and Senate intelligence committees at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019. Mr. Linick, who was fired by President Donald Trump May 15, met virtually Wednesday with members of the House and Senate to defend his work.

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The American battle over government accountability is as old as the Constitution. But obliging the government to control itself has gotten harder, particularly when it comes to oversight of presidents and their administrations. Polarized partisanship accounts for much of the problem. Parties in Congress walk in lockstep with – or against – the president. In the process, they cede more power to the executive branch.

Since early April, President Donald Trump has fired, transferred, or moved to replace five inspectors general or acting IGs, as well as a whistleblower scientist who crossed the president on the coronavirus. They were in high-profile departments such as intelligence and the Pentagon, and they were looking into sensitive matters, such as favoritism, federal spending, and preparedness on the pandemic. One fired inspector general, Michael Atkinson of the intelligence community, received the whistleblower tip that triggered the impeachment inquiry.

“If you want government to be honest, then Congress has to have the right to investigate, inspector generals have to have the right to investigate, whistleblowers have to whistle,” says former Senate historian Don Ritchie. Temptations to abuse power abound in every administration, he notes. They need to be thwarted.

Ask Don Ritchie about the furor over President Donald Trump’s recent targeting of five internal watchdogs from prominent government agencies, and the former Senate historian cites James Madison’s argument for a government with checks and balances.

“If men were angels” there would be no need for government, the Founding Father posed, and if angels ruled, there would be no need for controls on government. Since neither is the case, Madison concluded: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

But obliging the government to control itself has gotten harder, particularly when it comes to oversight of presidents and their administrations, say Mr. Ritchie and others inside and outside government.

Polarized partisanship accounts for much of the problem. Parties in Congress walk in lockstep with – or against – the president. In the process, they cede more power to the executive branch.

In May, President Trump’s lawyers sought to strengthen that shift by arguing against certain congressional subpoena power before the Supreme Court. Additionally, the government’s inspectors general – the independent guardians against waste, fraud, and abuse within federal agencies – are in the president’s crosshairs, with little complaint from his party, which controls the Senate.

“If you want government to be honest, then Congress has to have the right to investigate, inspector generals have to have the right to investigate, whistleblowers have to whistle,” says Mr. Ritchie. Temptations to abuse power abound in every administration, he notes. They need to be thwarted.

Congressional response

One of the most recent inspectors general to lose his job, Steve Linick, was fired from his State Department post May 15, reportedly while investigating arms sales to Saudi Arabia and looking into misusing a political appointee for errands for the secretary and his wife. Today he met virtually with lawmakers from the House and Senate, defending the integrity of his work.

Since early April, President Trump has fired, transferred, or moved to replace four other inspectors general or acting IGs, as well as a whistleblower scientist who crossed the president on the coronavirus.

They were in high-profile departments such as intelligence and the Pentagon, and they were looking into sensitive matters, such as favoritism, federal spending, and preparedness on the pandemic. One fired inspector general, Michael Atkinson of the intelligence community, received the whistleblower tip that triggered the impeachment inquiry.

The president nominated a permanent replacement for the acting inspector general at Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, after she released a report on shortages on coronavirus testing and protective gear; ousted Glenn Fine from acting inspector general at the Pentagon after he was selected to oversee more than $2 trillion in coronavirus spending; and removed the Department of Transportation’s acting Inspector General Mitchell Behm amid reports of favoritism by the department secretary.

Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight, says she is “increasingly alarmed” that a weak response from Congress is being perceived as a green light for the president to wage “war” on the inspector general system. That produces a “chilling effect” in the IG offices and discourages potential whistleblowers, says Ms. Brian, whose organization describes itself as a non-partisan independent watchdog.

“In a way, it’s really clever of the White House to target this particular universe of offices … because they are uniquely able to ferret out misconduct and corruption, which is why they were created in the first place,” she says.

Watergate legacy

Today’s corps of 74 inspectors general has its roots in reforms following the Watergate scandal, which led to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Created by Congress, the posts are meant to be independent, nonpartisan watchdogs inside the government who conduct audits and investigate wrongdoing. People can report tips to them, and IG offices can investigate those tips, make findings, and recommend changes. They report to both the agency head and to Congress.

In recent years, inspectors general have found the armed services lax in reporting sex offenders to the FBI; concluded that the FBI had cause to investigate alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia (strongly disputed by the president and still being investigated today); and that a troubled solar panel company, Solyndra, misled federal officials and cost taxpayers half a billion dollars during the Obama administration. They have uncovered the torture of post-9/11 detainees, and billions in waste in Afghanistan reconstruction projects.

Ms. Brian calls President Trump’s actions against these agency guardians an unprecedented attack that she believes is not over yet. Critics of the president’s rapid-fire changes describe them as retaliatory, and complain that replacements are political allies of Mr. Trump with conflicts of interest.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who has vigorously defended inspectors general and whistleblowers over his long career, wrote to the president demanding he follow the law, requiring a full explanation for the firings. Last week the White House responded, defending the president’s right to remove an inspector general in whom he simply has lost confidence.

Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, of the House Oversight Committee, says he is not impressed with Senator Grassley’s letter-writing.

“Where’s the firebrand Chuck Grassley who’s the Thor with the hammer protecting the independence of IGs and insisting on oversight and accountability no matter what it takes?” asks Representative Connolly. The congressman has co-written a bill that would further protect inspectors general from undue political influence and retribution by allowing removal only for cause, and by requiring documentation of that to Congress.

Transfer of power

The law allows the president broad discretion, and when it’s unchecked, it’s going to get taken advantage of, says former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who chaired the House oversight committee during the presidency of George W. Bush. The president is well within his rights, he says, but he doesn’t believe the law envisioned retaliatory firings or “these particular cases.” He adds that in his experience, “not all IGs are good.” Indeed, in 2008 Congress added a special council to oversee inspectors general.

But the problem with oversight is bigger than the IG law, says Mr. Davis. “What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is a huge transfer of power from Congress to the executive branch,” he says.

“This has been going on for some time. The president just accelerated it.”

Congressional investigations of the executive branch tend to be highly partisan in divided government – think of the months that Republicans spent investigating the Benghazi attack under President Barack Obama, and of course, the impeachment of President Trump, says Ms. Brian. “For successful oversight, you’ve got to have buy-in from both sides or the public will not see the effort as legitimate,” she says.

She points out that the Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other administration. President Obama also fired an inspector general over a sensitive matter saying merely that he lacked confidence in the official. But the hue and cry, including congressional investigation, over that one case held a lesson for the president and that was the last time he did that.

“We have been trying to enhance protection for IGs since the Bush administration. This was a foreseeable problem,” says Ms. Brian.

Conservative values

Ms. Brian says she is working on inspector-general reform legislation with Senator Grassley’s office and reaching out to a few other Republicans in the Senate – the chokepoint of any such reform because of GOP loyalty to the president. The IGs need “guardrails” she says. They need “for-cause” removal protections, and also ways to prevent sidelining of their investigations when they leave their posts; they should not be replaced temporarily by the president’s political allies.

She sees a “glimmer of hope” in the interest of a few other Senate Republicans. And anecdotally, she was pleased that when she appeared as a guest on a recent C-SPAN show, about half of the Republican callers said that firing the inspectors general “was not OK.”

“This is the kind of accountability … in government that is important to conservative values, and it is making more Republicans uncomfortable than we’ve seen before,” she says.

Others are less optimistic, with Mr. Davis predicting that things get worse before they get better, and that more tussles between Congress and the president will end up in court. A Supreme Court ruling against congressional subpoenas of the president’s financial records would “completely upend the ability of Congress to do any meaningful oversight at all,” says Representative Connolly.

Mr. Ritchie suspects that the tightening of the IG system will wait until after the election, when a consensus develops that “something is wrong.” That’s what happened after Watergate.

“I’ve lived through a lot of big scandals,” he says, “and they do tend, in the end, to right themselves.”

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