The Importance of Independence

Trump's recent firing spree raises questions on investigative independence and governmental accountability.

Monday, May 18th, 2020

Over the last six weeks, President Trump has ordered the removal of four government watchdogs. Here’s how it went down.

First, Trump fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who assisted the Ukraine whistleblower to provide the evidence that led to the president’s impeachment. “It is hard not to think that the President's loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General,” Atkinson remarked after his removal.

Next, the president demoted the acting inspector general at the Department of Defense Glenn Fine, who was the inspector general in charge of oversight of the two trillion dollar Covid-19 economic stimulus package. He did so without explanation.

Within a week, the president replaced Christi Grimm, the acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services. In April, she issued a report detailing extensive Covid-19 testing delays and a lack of critical supplies in many hospitals. The assistant inspector general for HHS called the report “the first objective, independent, national look at how hospitals are addressing the Covid-19 response,” and it was lauded by many private hospitals, research institutions, and universities such as Johns Hopkins. During a White House briefing, the President blasted Grimm’s findings as “wrong” and later targeted the career government official in a tweet. She was fired soon after.

For reference, just under 90,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 compared to about 17,000 deaths from the swine flu.

Finally, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was removed from his post by the President last Friday. Linick was in the process of investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for allowing a State Department political appointee to improperly assist Pompeo on personal matters. Pompeo specifically asked the President to remove Linick from his post.

Not only was Linick investigating Pompeo, he was also looking into American-Saudi military sales commissioned by the President’s administration, and the President and the Secretary of State were likely aware of the status of this investigation. Pompeo told the Washington Post that the inspector general was ousted because he “wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to,” but didn’t offer further details.

Four inspector generals removed in six weeks. This is major cause for concern, and here’s why.

The role of the inspector general is to be an objective observer of their federal department. They act as a sort of auditor, a watchdog of agencies and their officials to ensure the absence of corruption, illegal actions, and inefficiency.

Three of the four fired inspector generals were investigating failures and shady dealings of the Trump administration just before their removal. They were doing their job, and they got fired. Suspicion abounds, and it should.

The question here is one of cause, and neither Trump or Pompeo have produced any clear reasoning for the firings. Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi admitted that “the president has the right to fire any federal employee,” but she asserted the fact that “if it looks like it’s in retaliation for something that the IG, the inspector general is doing, that could be unlawful.” Trump told Pelosi and other legislators that he lost confidence in the capability of the four inspector generals, but GOP mainstay Sen. Chuck Grassley criticized the President’s actions, saying that “a general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.”

As witnessed by Grassley’s comments, the president’s moves have drawn rare bipartisan criticism. The occasionally rebellious Republican Sen. Mitt Romney may have thrown the heaviest punches of any legislator, attacking the oustings a “threat to accountable democracy.”

Romney isn’t wrong. Trump’s actions threaten the very idea of investigative independence. According to top Democrats in the House and the Senate, Trump fired Inspector General Linick “because the Inspector General had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself.” This case hearkens back to the infamous Mueller investigation, in which the president threatened Mueller’s removal in the middle of the investigation against him and many of members of his administration. The firings even bring back memories of Trump’s controversial firing of the former Director of the FBI James Comey after the director refused to halt the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Inspector generals are supposed to be objective. That’s the whole point of their job: to keep our government accountable to objective standards. If the President can simply fire anyone who investigates him or his cabinet members, inspector generals cannot remain truly independent. Instead, they must pander to the President and the administration in fear of their career.

Investigative independence is vital to maintaining the integrity of our government officials and prohibiting corruption from blossoming. We need impartial watchdogs, and President Trump compromising (yet again) on Constitutional and legal standards only serves to further denigrate our justice system and shift the balance of power squarely in favor of the president. Justice doesn’t have a party — everyone must hold to the same standard in order to sustain the American republic and allow it to flourish free of corruption.

If the president is truly under the law, then Trump’s actions may very well be considered obstruction of justice, and rightfully so. President Trump isn’t a king, and he shouldn’t be acting like one. He should not be able to circumvent justice by the virtue of his power and position. Even Bill Clinton maintained a dutiful respect for the rule of law during the Lewinsky scandal, but Trump has yet to publicly hold to the same standard. Interfering in investigations for political gain is morally objectionable, and if the president’s actions prove to be illegal, Donald Trump may be facing another investigation on the scale of Mueller or the impeachment trial.

Read on: NPR, Reuters, The Constitution Center (The President and the Rule of Law)

Picture of Michael Atkinson by the EPA