Noah Bookbinder Trump's firing of government watchdogs chips away at America's checks and balances

The president has shown his hand, his closest allies have spoken and the crackdowns on inspectors general have intensified.
Image: Inspector General
Friday night sackings of government watchdogs have become a key part of the Trump narrative. Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics

President Donald Trump is (sometimes) more predictable than people give him credit for. When he is feeling empowered or particularly aggrieved, he takes dangerous, often unprecedented steps to undercut oversight and undermine checks and balances. When there is a public outcry, he backs off, for a time, but when the coast seems clear or other stories give him media cover, he starts up again. The pattern has accelerated this year, with the firing of key government watchdogs to cap a string of recent abuses.

Trump's removal of inspectors general is particularly egregious, and he's now done it almost weekly in the last six weeks. He's purging the government of independent inspectors general and, in several cases, replacing them with partisan loyalists.

When he is feeling empowered or particularly aggrieved, he takes dangerous, often unprecedented steps to undercut oversight.

The Friday night sackings of government watchdogs have become a key part of the Trump narrative. Three weeks ago, the president announced a replacement for the acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm. Trump had excoriated Grimm in April after she issued a report on shortages of crucial medical supplies. Late on May 15, he announced his intention to fire the State Department's inspector general, Steve Linick, who was reported to have been investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for possible use of government employees for personal errands and for potential wrongdoing connected with arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo himself recommended that Linick be fired, and Trump went along with the request — a seemingly glaring conflict of interest. (Indeed, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, co-chair of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, suggested that the situation required further clarification.)

Also on May 15, the president sidelined the acting inspector general of the Transportation Department, Mitch Behm, who was reported to have been investigating Secretary Elaine Chao for possible favoritism to projects in Kentucky, the state represented in the Senate by her husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The actions followed April's firing of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, who notified Congress about the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that ultimately resulted in Trump's impeachment. Trump also sidelined Glenn Fine, then the acting inspector general of the Defense Department, who had been selected by his peers in the IGs' community to oversee the handling of trillions of dollars in pandemic relief; the president replaced him with a loyalist.

There are 74 offices of inspector general across the federal government, up from the 12 established by the Inspector General Act of 1978. Presidents sometimes bristle at inspectors general, who can make their lives difficult — President Barack Obama included. But past presidents have been passive-aggressive in their responses; Trump has been in-your-face aggressive, which is new and dangerous. Trump has left many inspector general positions vacant, to be filled, instead, by acting officials, who have less independence and can be replaced more easily, and he has treated reports from these watchdogs as attacks rather than guides for improving government performance. The recent removals take his assault up a major level.

While Trump's aversion to accountability dates to the beginning of his candidacy, Trump seems to have stepped up his war on checks and balances after a bare, partisan Senate majority acquitted him on impeachment charges in February. Never one to let go of a good grudge, Trump quickly set to work post-trial, firing and transferring national security officials — like former National Security Council official Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union — who didn't carry water for him. He also publicly pressured Attorney General William Barr to push for a reduced sentence for his longtime friend and ally Roger Stone.

A few months later, under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, Barr took another shocking step. Working with a hand-picked interim U.S. attorney — and without the participation of career prosecutors — Barr moved to dismiss the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a close Trump ally, even though Flynn admitted his criminal offense in court on multiple occasions.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the president and his allies have been promoting a made-up scandal dubbed "Obamagate," asserting that the officials who appropriately investigated conduct by Flynn and others were doing something scandalous and criminal. We should avoid the temptation to conclude that this is just another attempt to distract from damaging coronavirus headlines. It may be that there will be legitimate findings of small-scale wrongdoing, like an improper leak, and that the "scandal" narrative will then be used to try to tar others, like former Vice President Joe Biden, as part of a larger, if wholly unsupported, conspiracy.

It seems crazy to imagine any president would go still further and use the law enforcement powers of the U.S. government to investigate and prosecute political opponents — at least after President Richard Nixon. But it's worth considering whether we should have any confidence at all that this president and his allies won't go there. The majority of senators have done little to temper his escalating assaults on democracy.

The president and his attorney general have already used the law enforcement powers of the United States to protect the president's friends and allies against the judgement of career prosecutors. This attorney general, ever eager to use his authority to bolster the president politically, has already launched new investigations into the origins of the Russia investigation despite repeated findings by courts and watchdogs that the investigation had a proper basis.

Which brings us back to the issue of inspectors general. Trump has systematically removed those with the power of oversight of his administration. What basis then do we have to really doubt that he would hijack law enforcement to go after his enemies?

We aren't powerless against these broadsides. Congress can launch investigations, hold hearings and pass new protections for watchdogs and whistleblowers. The HEROES Act, passed last week by the House, includes additional protections for inspectors general, and some members of Congress are discussing still stronger measures. The pandemic feels all-encompassing, so Congress will likely focus on these democracy issues only if it hears from constituents that people are paying attention and want it to act. That's where the American people come in.

The president has shown his hand, his closest allies have spoken and the crackdowns on democratic checks and balances have intensified. It's time for all Americans to start paying attention — and to demand action before it's too late.

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