WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent purge of nearly a half dozen independent government watchdogs marked a new first: a president firing an inspector general at the urging of an agency head who was being investigated for possible wrongdoing.
Trump fired State Department inspector general Steve Linick last Friday at the behest of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both Trump and Pompeo acknowledged.
Linick reportedly was examining allegations that Pompeo and his wife, Susan, were using a State Department employee to run household errands, including walking their dog and picking up dry cleaning.
Pompeo also was part of an inquiry into whether the Trump administration declared an “emergency” in order to skirt a congressional freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Pompeo reiterated that he had sought Linick’s ousting but denied allegations that it was in retaliation for his investigation of Pompeo.
"Frankly, (I) should have done it some time ago," Pompeo said.
It is not known whether other department heads in the Trump administration have made similar removal recommendations to the president. But Pompeo’s acknowledgment is unprecedented and could have a chilling effect on inspectors general across the government, said Ervin Clark, a former inspector general at the State Department and two other agencies during President George W. Bush’s administration.
“I don’t doubt that some agency heads have privately advocated for (IGs’) removal from time to time, but I do not recall an instance where removal is publicly called for or acknowledged,” Clark, now a partner at the Squire Patton Boggs law firm, wrote in an email.
The State Department inspector general also audits the operations of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the parent agency of Voice of America and other international broadcasting entities.
Linick’s firing was part of a housecleaning Trump started in early April when he fired Michael Atkinson, an intelligence community inspector general, whom Trump said was not a “big Trump fan.”
Atkinson became the target of Trump’s ire after transmitting a whistleblower complaint to Congress that led to Trump’s impeachment in December.
In between the firings of Atkinson and Linick, Trump replaced three other watchdogs that critics say are part of his attack on the so-called "deep state" federal bureaucracy:
- Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine, who had been tapped to lead the IG community’s oversight of coronavirus stimulus funds
- Christi Grimm, the Health and Human Services watchdog who had released a critical report about testing and medical supply shortages
- Acting Transportation Department watchdog Mitch Behm, whose office was reportedly investigating department Secretary Elaine Chao
In two cases, Trump put political appointees, including a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, in charge of IG offices, raising questions about their willingness to take on their agencies.
While Trump has made a habit of firing officials he perceives as disloyal or otherwise unfavorable, his assault on the independent watchdogs has sent fear and shock across a community that was created in the wake of the 1970s-era Watergate government abuse scandal.
The IGs are widely credited by both Republicans and Democrats with reining in waste and abuse in the federal bureaucracy.
With the fear of a presidential dismissal looming, inspectors general will likely avoid investigations that might antagonize their agency heads and the president, said Kathryn Newcomer, director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at The George Washington University.
“It's not about just the State Department. It's not just about that one inspector general,” said Newcomer, co-author of a recent book on inspectors general. “It's about the message that it is sending across our government. We’ve never had a situation like this.”
At the moment, more than 70 federal agencies have their own watchdogs. Their job is to prevent and investigate waste, fraud and abuse. Investigations carried out by inspectors general have exposed rampant abuse in government and saved taxpayers billions of dollars every year.
With Congress having approved four coronavirus bills totaling nearly $3 trillion to cope with the pandemic, vigorous oversight to root out waste, fraud and corruption is critically needed, government experts say.
While the inspectors general, like other political appointees, serve at the pleasure of the president, they report to Congress and have rarely been fired. Before Trump took office in 2017, only two inspectors general had been ousted under pressure from the White House, while about 15 others had been pushed out by Congress, according to Newcomer.
"The notion of independence and being able to tell truth to power was very critical,” Newcomer said.
Under the inspector general statute, Trump can fire any inspector general “without cause,” as long as he communicates the reasons for their firing at least 30 days before their removal.
In Atkinson’s case, Trump disregarded the requirement. In Linick’s case, he gave Congress a 30-day notification last week, saying he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in him. He immediately replaced Linick with an acting watchdog.
Not sufficient enough to fire IG
But Democrats claimed Linick had been fired because he had opened an investigation into Pompeo. And Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a close Trump ally and staunch defender of inspectors general, demanded answers from Trump, insisting that “loss of confidence” was not sufficient reason for firing an inspector general.
“This is in large part because Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of unfitness, wrongdoing, or failure to perform the duties of the office,” Grassley wrote in a letter to Trump.
At the Wednesday press conference, Pompeo flatly denied any wrongdoing and said he will “share with the appropriate people the rationale” for firing Linick.
Linick’s removal may not be the last. With little serious pushback from Congress, experts fear Trump will likely continue what he has called “draining the swamp.”
“I would not be surprised if we saw the president taking additional steps to remove inspectors general,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Government Oversight Project in Washington.
To protect inspectors general against arbitrary dismissal, Hempowicz said Congress should pass legislation lengthening their terms in office and requiring “for-cause” removal.
“It certainly would make it harder for the president to fire somebody for no reason at all,” she said.