By Firing 5 Inspectors General, Trump Wages War On Accountability

Over the course of six weeks, 5 inspectors general were fired for investigating Trump administration corruption. Trump seeks to turn watchdogs into lapdogs.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump (AP)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump (AP)

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Plenty of politicians have taken advantage of the Friday news dump trick to try and bury a story. They drop a story as people are heading off for the weekend and by Monday morning it’s a distant memory. The Trump administration has tried this on numerous occasions but, significantly, they’ve repeatedly used it to announce the firing of an inspector general.

Over the course of six weeks, each on a Friday night, the White House announced the firing of three inspectors general who, by simply doing their job, had angered Donald Trump. These firings, paired with Donald Trump replacing two acting inspectors general a month or so earlier, reveals a pattern of behavior that reflects the White House’s efforts to undermine oversight and avoid scrutiny of its actions.

The five inspectors general were removed from the Defense Department, Health and Human Services, Intelligence Community, State Department, and Transportation Department. Before their removal, each of them was conducting oversight into the actions taken within their departments. For example, before Donald Trump announced he had been fired, the State Department’s Inspector General was conducting two separate probes: one into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to fast track an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and another into allegations of misconduct at the department’s Office of Protocol. Due to their work, concerns have, inevitably, been raised over the potential political motivations behind their departures. Pompeo has admitted that he asked Trump to fire the Inspector General.

Inspectors general are non-partisan officials. They serve during Democratic and Republican administrations, moving from one to the next, treating them all equally. Their role is to oversee the actions of presidents, their cabinet members, and their staff, protecting taxpayers’ dollars and preventing corruption from seeping into politics. So, given all of Donald Trump’s cries of ‘Drain the swamp!’, you would imagine that he would be a fan of officials whose job it is to do just that. Instead, he has sought to tear apart those positions and declare war on accountability.

This is a direct rebuttal by the White House to the mechanisms of scrutiny and oversight that keep a president in check. It’s essentially saying that the President and members of his administration are above the law. It’s something that without intervention will continue to occur time and time again while Donald Trump is in office.

Donald Trump is not the sole bearer of responsibility though, as he has been enabled by members of the Republican Party who have willfully stood by while he has behaved in this manner. Congress has the power to challenge Donald Trump’s decision to fire an inspector general, as he has to give 30 days’ notice to Congress that he intends to remove the individuals from their post. However, it takes political courage from the GOP to stop him and, so far, they have not shown any interest in seeking to block these actions. Some have expressed concern, but furrowed brows and inaction is something we’ve come to expect from the GOP.

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Donald Trump’s attacks on inspectors general are even bigger than the issues they were investigating, although the halting of those investigations alone should concern voters. America’s democratic institutions can only function effectively with the proper system of checks and balances that are supposed to exist. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches should operate independently, in order to provide an effective separation of powers, so no branch can act beyond their constitutionally prescribed remit. Inspectors general form a key role in that system, but now they are being prevented from doing so. Donald Trump has created a culture of fear where either they refuse to investigate potential wrongdoing for fear of losing their jobs, or they attempt to investigate wrongdoing and find their employment being terminated.

Donald Trump has successfully eliminated one layer of oversight during his presidency, by securing the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to guarantee that Republican senators do not challenge or stand in the way of the White House’s actions. Now, it looks like Donald Trump is attempting to remove another layer of oversight. There is no modern precedent for an administration firing so many inspectors general.

Not since President Richard Nixon had the Saturday Night Massacre, resulting in departures of senior personnel at the Justice Department, has such an attack been seen on those responsible for oversight. Now, the current administration is seeking to create a situation where there are no watchdogs, only lapdogs – a situation where those responsible for the oversight are not loyal to the constitution or their country, but are only loyal to the President. This is shown in the latest firing, where inspector general and career civil servant Steve Linick is being replaced by Vice President Mike Pence’s ally Ambassador Stephen Akard.

It is another example of how Donald Trump refuses to be transparent with the public. He has, at every turn, sought to keep documents and information out of the public eye and away from those who can scrutinize his actions. During the Russia investigation, the White House refused to cooperate with the Special Counsel and Congress, with Donald Trump refusing to sit for an interview with Bob Mueller. When the Democratic Party took control of the House and began investigating the actions that had been taken by the White House during the past two years, Donald Trump invoked executive privilege to prevent members of his administration from testifying. During the 2016 election, Donald Trump sought to hide his tax returns, a fight that’s still taking place and is expected to continue up to, and perhaps beyond, 2020’s Election Day.

Despite Donald Trump’s desire to pose this as a Republican vs Democrat issue, suggesting he is withholding documents and information from politicians who are conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against him, that’s not the case. When a president tries to prevent scrutiny and oversight, they are not taking power away from inspectors general or Congress, they are taking it away from voters. Voters should be fully informed when they head to the ballot box and, to do that, they need their politicians to be transparent with them.

When a politician refuses to be open with those responsible for overseeing their actions, they are denying voters information that they have a right to know. Transparency isn’t a political debate. It’s not something that’s partisan. It’s something that every voter should expect from the individuals who wish to represent them and who are paid with their tax dollars. By firing inspectors general who are investigating potential wrongdoing, Donald Trump is stripping voters of that right.

On one level this is about the current administration. Voters and Congress should be motivated to act and challenge this behavior because they believe oversight and scrutiny should take place. But, if that’s not enough, consider the wider ramifications of these moves. In Washington DC, when one party eliminates a norm, it rarely comes back. When the other party takes over, they take advantage of the new power they have. This isn’t just about Donald Trump’s war on accountability. This is about the world that comes after Donald Trump.

When the Democratic Party regains control of all three branches of government, and that will happen eventually, whether in 2020, 2024 or after, Republicans need to ask themselves this: ‘Are they comfortable with no oversight being conducted?’, because that’s the world they are creating for themselves. That’s a world that serves nobody’s interests. A government and political party unchecked isn’t a democracy. It’s a dictatorship. All politicians should welcome oversight, if not because they believe in being transparent with the electorate, then because they want their successor to face transparency. Donald Trump’s war on accountability should concern us all.

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Opinion // Corruption / Donald Trump / Inspectors General / Mike Pompeo / Rule Of Law