What are Inspector Generals and why do we have them? In 1978, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Inspector General Act, establishing independent Inspector Generals, to uncover waste, fraud or abuse across scores of federal departments and agencies. The law was passed by all but 6 votes in the House and by unanimity in the Senate and for nearly three decades no one questioned the authority of Inspectors General to obtain sensitive or protected information, and no one accused them of mishandling it. A good idea, right? Not so fast.
How Presidents Have Reacted to Oversight. Not surprisingly, since the law was enacted, Presidents have had uneasy relationships with Inspector Generals since the law was enacted. Inspectors General are supposed to root out the graft, malfeasance, and mismanagement coming from inside the departments they oversee. That can sometimes mean running afoul of the president. Obama fired three Inspector Generals and was criticized for stonewalling in providing documents to IG’s that were critical to their investigations of possible wrongdoing.
Trump’s All Out War on Inspector Generals and Oversight. In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, however President Donald Trump is taking unprecedented steps to gut the government structures designed to ensure the rule of law in the United States. Let’s call it like it is. Trump tramples the Constitution at every turn and has no understanding much less interest in the concepts of Separation of Powers, checks and balances and Congressional oversight. Note for example that only hours after Mr. Trump signed a sweeping $2 trillion measure to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the President suggested that he had the power to decide what information a newly created inspector general intended to monitor the funds could share with Congress. Said the Trump:
“I do not understand, and my administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision.”
In the last few weeks Trump removed three Inspector Generals and this past Friday, he announced his intention to remove a fourth, State Department Inspector General, Steve Linick, soon after it was learned that Linick reportedly opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to look into whether Mr. Pompeo had misused a political appointee at the State Department to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife. Even more worrisome is that Linick was investigating a declaration of a national security emergency in 2019 to justify an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
Then today, we find out that Trump decision has also decided to remove the Transportation Department’s acting Inspector General Mitch Behm who was allegedly investigating the Transportation Secretary’s Elaine Chao favoritism for her husband, Mitch McConnell’s state. Congressional representatives have protested that Behm’s removal “is the latest in a series of politically motivated firings of inspectors general by President Trump.’’ The lawmakers wrote. “This assault on the integrity and independence of inspectors general appears to be an intentional campaign to undermine their ability to expose corruption and protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud and abuse.
Trump’s assault on the independence of Inspector Generals — the watchdogs that monitor waste, fraud and abuse of power in government agencies and whose missions are to conduct oversight of the nation’s sprawling bureaucracy should surprise no one. But the fact that even during the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump is recklessly destroying government structures designed to ensure the rule of law in the United States, should terrify even his most diehard supporters in the Senate.