Without Restraint or Precedent: Trump’s Attacks on the Inspectors General System 

By Katrina Meyer

In the last few months, President Donald Trump has fired or replaced five inspectors general (IG): Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson, Acting Transportation Department Deputy IG Mitch Behm, Defense Department Principal Deputy IG Glenn Fine, Health and Human Services Principal Deputy IG Christi Grimm, and, most recently, State Department IG Steve Linick.

The firing of so many IGs has prompted bipartisan pushback from Congress. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) has requested an explanation from President Trump by June 1 as to why Linick was fired. He also requested that Trump provide an explanation to the request he made in response to the official White House response when Atkinson was fired after Trump ignored the April 8 deadline Grassley assigned for providing more information.

While there have been instances of former presidents firing IGs, this exact situation is uniquely unprecedented. The position of Inspector General was created with the Inspector General Act of 1978. In the beginning, there were only 12, but that has grown to 73 IGs today. The position was created very late in the tenure of President Jimmy Carter, so Trump is only the sixth president after Carter to have IGs monitoring his administration.

Ronald Reagan, who took over from Carter in 1980, began his tenure by firing all the IGs Carter had appointed. The official reason that Reagan gave was that the IGs appointed by Carter were not tough enough on corruption. According to a statement released by his press secretary, Reagan wanted people who were “meaner than a junkyard dog” to fill the IG positions. He was eventually forced to rehire several of the IGs under immense political pressure. While many people were not fully satisfied with the explanation, Reagan did bow to Congressional pressure.

George H. W. Bush took over after Reagan. On his first day, he sent all the IGs a letter that presidents traditionally submit to people who were appointed by the previous president, asking for their resignation. The IGs did not agree that they should resign and neither did Congress. They all argued that the position of IG was apolitical in nature, so the change of administration was not reason enough to have new appointees. Bush did not pursue the matter any further, and the majority of IGs stayed in their position, and the ones who left went voluntarily. Bush, like Reagan, respected Congress when they backed the IGs against him, and he also listened to Congressional wishes concerning IGs.

After seeing the backlash that his predecessor received for requesting the resignation of IGs, Bill Clinton seemingly ignored the advice of his staff to do the same. George W. Bush and Barack Obama followed suit. 

While George W. Bush did not technically fire any IGs, some controversy developed following his ousting of two IGs.The Corporation for National and Community Service IG Louise Jordan and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration IG Roberta Gross both resigned under pressure on February 14, 2002. The Brookings Institute voiced the concern that this was only the beginning of Bush removing IGs. While it is unclear whether or not this plan existed, after the outcry surrounding Jordan and Gross, Bush made no further attempts to fire IGs during his administration.

The next president to actually fire an IG was Barack Obama. In 2009, he fired Americorps IG Gerald Walpin. Obama too faced strong opposition from Congress, prompting him to release a letter explaining the decision. The letter was written by Obama’s special counsel in charge of ethical matters in the administration, and it cited complaints against Walpin from the board he oversaw calling him “confused [and] disoriented” as well a complaint filed against him by a career federal prosecutor. While not everyone was satisfied by Obama’s reasoning and some suspected that recent reports by Walpin that were embarrassing to the administration played a role in Obama’s decision, ultimately, Obama listened to Congress and provided additional reasoning for his decision.

Overall, throughout the 42-year history of the IG position, we have not seen a disregard of both the mission of the position and the will of Congress and the public like we are currently seeing. Neither Clinton nor H. W. Bush fired any IGs at all; W. Bush forced two to resign, but ultimately gave up what many thought were his plans to continue; Reagan fired many, but gave in to Congressional pressure, rehiring several; and Obama fired one, providing Congress with direct examples of reasons why he was fired along with outside opinions agreeing with the move. Trump has done none of these things. He has fired five IGs, ignored all Congressional requests for justification, and has shown no remorse in the face of public outcry, continuing to fire IGs.

We at Government Accountability Project are deeply concerned by these actions. Inspectors General are meant to be apolitical watchdogs meant to investigate and report on corruption and wrongdoing. They are also important advocates for assisting whistleblowers in their disclosures. Trump’s actions will only create a chilling effect where those who know the truth will be forced to choose between keeping their job in a time of great economic unrest or telling the truth. The stakes could not be higher in light of the pandemic sweeping our country and the world. Accurate, reliable information is more vital than ever before. We need to have a government that is just as invested in fixing corruption and wrongdoing as the brave whistleblowers coming forward from all sectors of the government and economy are. Trump has completely thrown out any restraint his predecessors showed in his firings of inspectors general. This cannot continue.