Commentary: Trump’s firings meant to silence the watchdogs

More than dismissing valued inspector generals, he’s sending a chilling message to those who remain.

By David C. Williams / The Washington Post

President Trump’s spate of inspector general removals this spring is alarming, and every American should be concerned about the state of federal government oversight. But the problem with Trump’s actions is not simply removing the watchdogs; it’s also the chilling effect left on those who remain and the fact that the president is replacing some of the ousted officials with thinly credentialed political loyalists.

Inspectors general were established to conduct independent, dogged investigations into federal government agencies and report their findings freely to Congress and the public. Yet at the very time we need thorough oversight of the federal government’s expansive coronavirus relief spending, the president is conducting a war on those tasked with holding him accountable.

Trump’s removal of inspectors general has a deleterious impact on the entire inspector general community. Particularly with the removals of Michael Atkinson as inspector general for the intelligence community and Steve Linick as inspector general for the State Department, there’s a strong indication that the president fired them simply because of their involvement in investigations that cast the administration in a negative light.

And it is hard to interpret Trump’s decision to replace acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine, chosen to lead a panel of inspectors general overseeing the coronavirus relief funds. Fine represents the best of the best within the IG community. He has a long history of successes in ferreting out sophisticated frauds and wrongdoing. That’s a reason to keep him, not replace him.

The inspectors general who remain have every reason to be concerned for themselves and their subordinates as they embark on investigations that could turn up unwelcome findings or evidence of a crime or misconduct. They will worry that they will be damned if they do; and allowed to remain only if they don’t.

But perhaps more concerning are the individuals the president has named to replace some of the career civil servants that he has removed.

The new acting inspectors general at the State and Transportation departments are both political appointees chosen from within their departments, and both will reportedly remain in their current roles at their respective departments. This presents a number of issues.

Appointing an official to investigate an agency while still reporting to that agency head presents a huge conflict of interest and runs contrary to the rule of law. It should be explicitly barred. These officials will also be privy to confidential information and the complaints and identities of whistleblowers. This is disturbing and could leave whistleblowers afraid to come forward if they witness wrongdoing.

It’s also worrisome that these nominees might lack the proper qualifications since they were pulled from the ranks of the departments. Inspectors general typically have a background in investigations or auditing.

We need experienced inspectors general who are committed to conducting rigorous oversight, now more than ever. The federal government is poised to spend trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid, and the inspectors general face the daunting task of monitoring that spending and holding the administration accountable.

In fact, several of the ousted inspectors general would have held seats on the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a panel of inspectors general established to conduct oversight over the coronavirus relief spending. To conduct effective oversight and speak freely about sensitive matters, members of the PRAC will need to trust one another. I have a hard time imagining the career investigators on the committee will feel comfortable discussing sensitive matters with political appointees still working in other roles within the administration. Without this necessary trust, the PRAC could be of limited value.

Given these troubling circumstances, Congress needs to step in and protect the independence of inspectors general. It must hold hearings with top State Department officials and intelligence community officials to get to the bottom of the Linick and Atkinson firings. Some members have requested more information on the reasoning behind these removals, but they must also push for depositions and testimony from the top officials involved in the decision-making process.

After the Watergate scandals, Congress passed the Inspector General Act to reassure the nation. It represented a visible sign that we remained a great and confident republic committed to self-scrutiny and clean government. There could not be a worse moment to break that pact with our citizens.

David C. Williams served as inspector general of the U.S. Postal Service, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Treasury Department, Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration and Nuclear Regulatory Commission during four presidential administrations.

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