Flouting Norms, Trump Seeks to Bring Independent Watchdogs to Heel


WASHINGTON — Congress had a clear idea of the role it expected inspectors general to play when it created them in 1978 after the Watergate scandals. They were to be dispersed in the agencies and departments of the federal government not as compliant team members but in-house referees, charged with rooting out corruption, waste, malfeasance and illegality.

As their numbers increased in the four decades since, inspectors general have played that role in bureaucracies as vast as the Pentagon and as tiny as the Denali Commission, charged with developing infrastructure in Alaska. It was an inspector general who in 2003 discovered that the C.I.A. was using unauthorized techniques to torture detainees and an inspector general who brought to light billions of dollars wasted in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

And now he has launched a full-fledged — and at moments quite innovative — attack on the ability of inspectors general to investigate his administration.

“Trump is replacing independent inspectors general with unqualified political allies, which is inconsistent with statutory requirements,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has written about the watchdog system. “The bottom line is he is removing independent officials who protect the public and help ensure the law is followed.”

Mr. Trump, who likes to brag that he has total authority over the executive branch, has shown that he has no intention of playing by those rules. In removing Mr. Linick, for example, the president immediately stripped him of authority and told Congress he no longer had full confidence in him, but did not say why.

Mr. Trump later told reporters that he did so only because Mr. Pompeo asked him to.

“I’ve said, ‘Who appointed him,’ and they said, ‘President Obama,’” the president said. “I said, look, ‘I’ll terminate him.’ I was happy to do it,” Mr. Trump later said. Mr. Pompeo added on Wednesday that he “should have done it some time ago.”

This week, Mr. Pompeo denied that he knew about what Mr. Linick was investigating other than the arms deal and said it was “patently false” that he asked Mr. Trump to fire him as retaliation. But he also refused to say what his reason was.

At the same time Mr. Trump removed Mr. Linick, he abruptly installed Howard “Skip” Elliott, a political appointee inside the Transportation Department, to serve as the acting inspector general for that department.

“It means that while still reporting to the agency secretary, they will have oversight of and access to all confidential inspector general information, including whistle-blower complaints and identities,” he wrote.

Mr. Grassley has also been pushing the president to provide a more detailed official explanation to Congress for his ouster last month of Michael K. Atkinson, the inspector general of the office of the director of national intelligence. As with Mr. Linick, Mr. Trump had put Mr. Atkinson on leave rather than waiting 30 days, and told Congress only that he had lost confidence in him.

But in remarks to reporters, the president clearly remained angry at Mr. Atkinson for trying to alert Congress to the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine’s leader into announcing a criminal investigation into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden.

There is some precedent for one of Mr. Trump’s tactics: In 2009, President Barack Obama abruptly ousted Gerald Walpin, the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and also put him on leave and initially told Congress only that he had lost confidence in the official.

But while administrations of both parties have periodically clashed with inspectors general, Mr. Trump’s campaign to intimidate and subjugate watchdogs to political control is without parallel.

Mr. Trump also replaced Mr. Fine as the acting Pentagon watchdog with Sean O’Donnell, the sitting inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency who had clashed with Andrew Wheeler, the head of the E.P.A. By requiring Mr. O’Donnell to split his time, critics said, the administration undercut his ability to perform oversight at both agencies.

“It’s impossible to do them both,” said David C. Williams, who served as inspector general of six federal agencies over the course of a government career that spanned from the Carter administration to the Trump administration.

But Mr. Trump’s latest twist — installing political appointees controlled by agency heads to run inspectors offices — was a further escalation.

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