WASHINGTON – Congress had a clear idea of what role it expected inspectors to play when it created them in 1978 following the Watergate scandals. They would be disseminated in the federal government’s offices and departments, not as legal members but internal judges, accused of eradicating corruption, waste, abuse and illegality.
As the number increased over the four decades since then, inspectors have played that role in bureaucracies as large as the Pentagon and as small as the Denali Commission, which is responsible for infrastructure development in Alaska. It was an inspector general who discovered it in 2003 C.I.A. used unauthorized technology to torture prisoners and an inspector general who produced billions of dollars that are wasted in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
But President Trump has made clear that he has little use for this kind of independent oversight, which he sees as yet another form of opposition from the so-called Deep State. “I think we have been treated very unfairly by the inspector general,” he said said this week.
And now he has launched a full-fledged – and at the moment rather innovative – attack on the ability of inspectors to investigate his administration.
Trump’s effort began last month with a sudden plethora of Friday night protections and demotion. It has escalated with an attempt to circumvent legal requirements that he submits to the Congress 30 days before removing an inspector general. He has forged new ground by replacing them with political appointees who hold on to their old jobs and keep them under the control of the Cabinet Secretary whom they will police.
The president’s move has hardly been subtle. When Steve A. Linick, State Department Inspector General, was fired last Friday, he was immediately locked out of his office and email. His replacement is Deputy Chairman Mike Pence and remains in a politically appointed post that is subordinate to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who complained this week that Mr. Linick was unwilling to live up to the secretary’s slogan, “a team, a mission.”
“Trump generally replaces independent inspectors with unqualified political allies, which is in violation of statutory requirements,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Louis who has written about the watchdog system. “First and foremost, he is removing independent officials who protect the public and help ensure compliance with the law.”
When President Jimmy Carter signed the 1978 law that created the inspectors’ general system, few imagined a president so determined to sign it. Mr Carter paid tribute to “the harmony and partnership created between the executive and legislative government to eradicate fraud and corruption and mismanagement.”
President Ronald Reagan replaced all of the Carter-appointed inspectors-general when he took over in 1981, but he later educated some of them, and since then the tradition has kept them in place when a new president takes office, a sign of respect for their non-partisan status. The president can remove them, but Congress demanded an explanation of the causes and introduced additional protection in 2008 by introducing a 30-day waiting period.
Trump, who likes to boast that he has complete authority over the executive branch, has shown that he does not intend to play by these rules. For example, when he removed Mr. Linick, the president immediately abolished him for authority and told Congress that he no longer had full confidence in him, but did not say why.
Trump later told reporters that he did so just because Pompeo asked him.
“I said, ‘Who appointed him,’ and they said, ‘President Obama,'” said the president. “I said, look, ‘I’m going to resign him.’ I was happy to do that,” Trump said later. Mr Pompeo added on Wednesday that he “should have done it some time ago.”
A replacement was announced immediately: Stephen J. Akard, who will also retain his current political appointment, subordinate to Mr Pompeo, as head of the Department of Foreign Affairs Office of Foreign Missions.
Among other things, Linick had investigated Pompeo and his wife, Susan Pompeo, inappropriately used a taxpayer paid by government employees to pursue personal affairs, and about Mr. Pompeo acted legally last year when he bypassed Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This week, Mr. denied. Pompeo knew he knew what Linick was doing other than the gun deal, saying it was “impatiently false” that he asked Trump to retaliate. But he also refused to say what his reason was.
At the same time Trump removed Linick, he abruptly installed Howard “Skip” Elliott, a political appointee in the transportation department, to serve as acting inspector general for that department.
Elliott replaced Mitch Behm, Deputy Inspector General, who had been leading the office since its longtime chief, Calvin L. Scovel III, retired in January for health reasons. That put Mr. Elliott, who remains subordinate Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, oversees the investigations of her work – including a departmental inquiry that has shown favoritism in directing taxpayer contributions to Kentucky, with Chao’s husband, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican and majority leader, fighting for reelection .
In a This week’s letter to Trump, Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Republican of Iowa and a supporter of the inspectors general system, opposed “obvious conflicts of interest” created by Trump’s installation of current political appointees to control watchdog offices and say the problems went beyond independence.
“This means that while they are still reporting to the agency’s secretaries, they will have oversight and access to all confidential inspector general information, including complaints and whistleblower IDs,” he wrote.
Grassley has also pressured the president to provide a more detailed official statement to Congress for his extension last month by Michael K. Atkinson, Inspector General of the Director of National Intelligence. As with Linick, Trump had put Atkinson on leave rather than waiting for 30 days and just told Congress that he had lost confidence in him.
But in remarks to reporters, the president remained clearly angry at Atkinson for trying to warn Congress for whistleblowing complaints about Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukrainian leaders to announce a criminal investigation by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden.
There’s one precedent for one of Trump’s tactics: In 2009, President Barack Obama abruptly eliminated Gerald Walpin, the inspector general for the National and Community Service, and also put him in office, initially telling him that he had lost confidence in the official.
But while administrations from both parties have regularly clashed with inspectors-in-chief, Trump’s campaign to intimidate and subject watchdogs to political control is parallel.
In late March, after the president signed a $ 2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, he issued a signing statement asserting the right to override an important safeguard measure: the creation of an inspector general who has the power to police $ 500 billion in corporate rescue funds. It required the inspector to tell Congress if the Treasury officials were looking to provide information on how the money was spent.
In the statement, Trump said he alone decided what information lawmakers received. And on April 3, he announced his intention to nominate Brian D. Miller, his own assistant in the White House, to the service, prompting critics to accuse him of being too close to the White House to provide aggressive and independent oversight.
On April 6, Trump addressed the acting inspector general secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi A. Grimm, after she issued a report on a lack of hospital equipment. He accused Grimm to be politically biased against him. Three weeks later, he nominated a potential replacement, even though she remains in place while that nomination awaits.
On April 7, Trump was appointed by Glenn A. Fine as the longtime Deputy Inspector General of the Department of Defense. The movement disqualified Mr. Fine, who has a reputation for aggression and independence, from continuing to serve as the just-named leader of a committee of inspectors-general created by Congress to coordinate the administration’s billions of taxpayer dollars related to the pandemic.
Trump also replaced Mr. Fine as an actor in the Pentagon with Sean O’Donnell, the sitting director general of the Environmental Protection Agency who had clashed with Andrew Wheeler, director of E.P.A. By demanding that O’Donnell divide his time, critics said, the administration went under its ability to conduct surveillance at both authorities.
“It’s impossible to do them both,” said David C. Williams, who served as inspector general for six federal agencies during a government career that stretched from the Carter administration to the Trump administration.
But Trump’s latest twist – to install political appointees controlled by bureau chiefs to run inspectors’ offices – was another step up.
“If you are meant to take guidance from the secretary who is your boss and also have professional skepticism about their job performance, it is difficult to reconcile these two roles,” said Andrew M. Wright, a former congressional ethics and supervisor for the Congress and the Obama White House. “You run the risk of being under the direct control of political appointees in a way that is not considered by the inspector general statute and cannot have the institutional distance to be able to review the work of political appointees.”
The reporting was contributed by Katie Benner, Helene Cooper, Coral Davenport, Erica Green, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Thomas Kaplan, Carol Rosenberg, Jennifer Steinhauer, Ana Swanson and Noah Weiland.