Firing of Inspectors General Slides Us Closer to Autocracy

May 21, 2020 | 11:16 am
Photo: lunamarina/Shutterstock
Ken Kimmell
Former President

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” So says Dick the Butcher in the Shakespeare play Henry VI, Part 2, as a ragtag band of rebels contemplates invading London and sacking the king.

While the line—and Shakespeare’s opinion of the legal profession—has been subject to fierce debate, many argue that Shakespeare was defending lawyers as a critical bulwark protecting a stable society and the rule of law. As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens noted for example, “Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.”

The same can now be said of Inspectors General.

These are the officials who investigate fraud, waste, abuse, and other misconduct within federal agencies, hear and evaluate whistleblower complaints, and inform Congress of their findings. These officials have sweeping power to conduct investigations, including the all-important right to issue and enforce subpoenas. Their investigations have brought suppressed and egregious facts to light, such as the CIA’s use of torture; they have exposed fraud, waste, and conflicts of interest that are believed to have saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

In the past six weeks, while the nation’s attention has been focused on COVID-19, the Trump administration has removed five officials from leading their respective agencies’ inspector general offices. Each removal is suspicious in its own right; collectively, they display an undeniable pattern: the effort to disable independent public servants who have disclosed information detrimental to the Trump administration, or who are in a position to do so.

A dangerous record of dismissals

First fired was Michael Atkinson, a top watchdog for the Intelligence agencies, whose most famous act was receiving the whistleblower complaint about President Trump’s Ukraine call, and informing Congress about it after determining that it was both credible and urgent.

Next came two career inspectors, Mitch Behm of the Department of Transportation, and Glenn Fine of the Department of Defense, both of whom were set to serve on the congressionally created Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the latter as chair. Congress created this committee to oversee the administration’s expenditure of more than $2 trillion in COVID-19 response costs—clearly a crucial body for making sure that this large public investment is well spent. Instead of Fine, a career public servant, the Trump administration has now picked a White House aide to chair this oversight committee.

Next to be fired was Christi Grimm, principal investigator at the Department of Health and Human Services who authored a scathing report documenting the serious shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing. The president first learned of this report at a press briefing on April 7 and was clearly infuriated, calling the report “wrong” before he had seen or heard of it. Ms. Grimm was fired three weeks later.

And, earlier this week, US State Department Inspector General Steven Linnick was fired. His removal is particularly troubling, as he is reported to have been actively investigating claims that Secretary Pompeo had commandeered state department employees for personal errands, used public funds for his wife’s travel, and circumvented a congressional ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Democracy at risk

For each of these dismissals, the Trump administration has given no specific rationale, claiming only that the president had “lost confidence” in these employees.

But the sacking of these officials strongly suggests a motive to retaliate against those who have unearthed detrimental information (Atkinson and Grimm); and disable those who are perceived as disloyal to the administration they are overseeing (Behm and Fine) or who are in the midst of conducting an investigation that could be detrimental (Linnick).

Taken together, these actions impede vigorous investigations of this administration. Yet, without robust and independent investigations, the facts of agency malfeasance may never be unearthed, and Congress, the media, and the public may be deprived of the information they need to hold an administration accountable.

The administration’s salvo against independent inspectors general is consistent with its modus operandi with congressional oversight and law enforcement. This administration entirely stiff-armed Congress during the impeachment investigation, providing no documents and ordering top officials not to testify, and later argued to a court that the House of Representatives had no standing to obtain that information through a court proceeding. And just last week, it argued to the Supreme Court that a sitting president has absolute immunity from any criminal investigation.

Thus, the administration is systematically blocking all the channels of information by which Congress and the public can find out what their government is doing and assess its performance. This puts democracy at risk.

What can be done?

Congress must hold hearings on all these removals to probe their basis. This is particularly important in the case of State Department Inspector General Linnick, as his firing is likely to halt pending investigations in their tracks before they have yielded any findings.

Second, Congress should enact a legislative protection for these oversight officials, perhaps by granting them fixed terms of office and providing that they can removed during that period only “for cause,” which typically means inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office. Many federal boards, whose independence is essential, are guaranteed such a protection, including members of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Third, the media, and the public, whose attention is now understandably focused on the pandemic, need to recognize what a serious blow the sacking of these oversight officials represents to our system of accountability. Unless we give these actions the forceful response they deserve, we risk looking back and marking these firings as the moment we crossed over the line to autocracy.