Inspectors general will drain the swamp, if Trump stops attacking them

This aerial picture shows the Washington Monument standing on the National Mall and the White House at far left in Washington, U.S., June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC1C9C4C2D70

Over the past month, President Trump has fired one inspector general, removed an acting inspector general set to oversee the pandemic response and its more than $2 trillion dollars in new funding, and publicly criticized another from the White House briefing room. These sustained attacks against the federal government’s watchdogs fly in the face of Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to “Drain the Swamp,” and further destabilize the government’s ability to identify waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct. The nation’s 74 IGs should be among his favorite actors in government; instead, he has doled out significant criticism of these officials.

Inspectors general (IGs) serve as semi-independent actors across cabinet departments, agencies, and other government entities with the mission and power to investigate wrongdoing within those agencies. They report to Congress, not to the president. Are you worried about waste, fraud, and abuse? IGs are here to help. Are you afraid of rogue government officials violating the nation’s laws? IGs are here to investigate. Worried there is a deep-state conspiracy set out to undermine the president’s legal directives? IGs are here to protect the rule of law.

But in spite of President Trump’s commitment to cleaning up Washington, he criticized the Acting HHS IG, Christi Grimm, for issuing a report criticizing hospital equipment preparedness for COVID-19. He fired the intelligence community IG for the proper handling of a whistleblower report that served as the foundation for his impeachment. These critiques as well as others have showcased the president’s comfort in trying to intimidate and politicize these government watchdogs. There are some suggestions that such politicization has already happened with the appointment of the Homeland Security IG Joseph Cuffari. Since he took over as IG in the summer of 2019 has seen investigations and audits have plummeted to record lows, even as DHS consistently makes the GAO “High-Risk List,” an annual list that identifies “government operations with vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.”

There has always been some level of tension between these government watchdogs and an incumbent administration. Whether it is agency heads, cabinet secretaries or even presidents, IG reports can unearth administration scandals. Presidential intimidation efforts toward some IGs can have ripple effects throughout the IG community. In 1981, President Reagan shocked many by firing every IG when he came to office. That effort had an impact beyond the officials’ removal, as Charles Johnson and Kathryn Newcomer write in their recent book Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times. They note that,

“[w]hile Reagan’s subsequent appointments were not notably ‘political,’ and despite strong negative reactions to the mass dismissals, his actions reminded the IGs that they were subject to dismissal by the president and that their performance needed to be in keeping with Reagan’s pledge to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Presidents both signal their policy interests to appointees and reiterate the their power to remove those appointees. That can happen with a broad brush as President Reagan did or in targeted ways as President Trump has done.

To that end, the Trump administration has had historically high turnover in offices of inspector general. Of the 74 offices of inspector general, 13 of them are currently vacant, have an official serving in an acting capacity, or have a nominee set to replace a current, confirmed IG.[1] While those IGs oversee some smaller agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, they also include major government entities like the CIA, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community. In fact, while nine of those government bodies have nominees pending before the Senate, four do not. And those four include two most central to the pandemic fight and the economic recovery: HHS and Treasury.

Vacancies at IG offices are nothing new under this president, who holds the record for overall vacancies. During the first 39 months of the Trump administration, there have been 37 departures among IGs and Acting IGs. This figure is historically high relative to Mr. Trump’s predecessors. According to Johnson and Newcomer’s book, in the entirety of their first terms (48 months), Bill Clinton saw 30 departures, George W. Bush saw 28, and Barack Obama saw 27.

These vacancies come with consequences for leadership, morale, and decision-making. Significant turnover can also raise concerns over politicization. Moreover, the Trump administration has multiplied the workload of some individual IGs. For example, when President Trump relieved Glenn Fine as Acting Inspector General for the Defense Department, he selected Sean O’Donnell to serve in an acting role. Mr. O’Donnell retained his position as Inspector General for the Environmental Protection Agency and also took on the IG role over a department with a budget of over $700 billion.

To be sure, vacancies among IGs can occur for a variety of reasons: firing, retirement, expiration of an acting role, or resignation (voluntary or otherwise)—some due to presidential behavior (direct or indirect) and some not. The sheer amount of turnover suggests there is something unique to this administration. Relative to other periods of history, IGs are running for the exits and staffing in interim periods is rocky.

To protect IGs, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) recently proposed the “Inspector General Independence Act of 2020,” which would set fixed, renewable terms of IGs and include a for-cause basis for their premature removal. Other officials like appointees to independent commissions or the Federal Reserve enjoy such protections in an effort to enhance their independence from the White House.

The broader concern over this amount of IG leadership turnover is that offices will not function as effectively or efficiently as possible. Coupled with a president who has been openly hostile toward IGs and their reports, it can create an environment in which the White House tries to have a chilling effective on government accountability.

Effectively, a president who aggressively attacks IGs is not one who wants to drain the swamp; he’s a president who wants the swamp monsters to thrive and grow. And, in this case, that president is opting to use anti-democratic rhetoric like saying Article II means “I have the right to do as president” or “when somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total.” Under those conditions, the work of IGs to be the safeguards of government and protectors of democracy is important, and the race for the exits is even more alarming.

The author thanks Emma Schroeder for her assistance with researching this piece.

[1] One of those offices, the Special Inspector General of Pandemic Recovery, was just created late last month via emergency legislation; however, there have already been two designees to serve as IG.