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Trump Twists Record on Inspectors General

Defending his decision to fire a fourth inspector general this year, President Donald Trump has misleadingly compared his record to past presidents, claiming, “I think every president has gotten rid of probably more than I have.”

According to a recently released Congressional Research Service report, since 2000, Barack Obama was the only president to remove an inspector general, and he removed one. Trump has now removed four in less than two months.

Taking questions from reporters after a roundtable with restaurant executives on May 18, Trump was asked about his decision to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on May 15, Trump said only, “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”

It was the latest in a series of inspector general removals since the beginning of April.

On April 3, Trump announced the removal of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. It was Atkinson who sent a letter to the House intelligence committee about the whistleblower’s complaint that ultimately led to impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Defending his decision to remove Atkinson, Trump claimed Atkinson, “took a fake report and he brought it to Congress.” (In fact, a White House memo of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last summer — in which Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter — corroborated the whistleblower’s three main points about the call. Trump’s repeated claim that the whistleblower’s complaint misrepresented the call ended up on our “Whoppers of 2019” list.) 

Within a week of firing Atkinson, Trump removed Gen. Glenn Fine from his role as acting Defense Department inspector general. And in early May, Trump replaced Christi Grimm, who was acting as the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services. Grimm’s removal came about a month after she released, and Trump criticized, a report on the results of a survey of hospitals, in which hospitals reported facing challenges with testing supplies and wait times for COVID-19.

Speaking to reporters on May 18, Trump said his decision to remove Linick came at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Linick was reportedly spearheading at least two investigations that involved Pompeo: one involving Pompeo’s efforts to fast-track emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and another into whether Pompeo used a State Department staffer to run personal errands for him.
Questioned about whether Linick’s removal was part of a pattern by the administration to avoid accountability, Trump said, “I think we’ve been treated very unfairly by inspector generals.” As for Linick specifically, Trump said he had never heard of him until Pompeo requested he be removed.

Trump, May 18: I never even heard of him, but I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike. I offered — most of my people, almost all of them — I said, “You know, these are Obama appointees. And if you’d like to let him go, I think you should let them go, but that’s up to you.” …

I’ve gotten rid of a lot of inspector generals; every president has. I think every president has gotten rid of probably more than I have. A lot of our people kept the Obama inspector general, and I think, generally speaking, that’s not a good thing to do, but they’ve kept them. But I told them — for three years I said, “Anybody who wants to get rid of their inspector generals because they were appointed by President Obama, I think you should do so.” Some of them didn’t, but now they’re doing — a couple of them are doing it now.

That comment doesn’t square with a Congressional Research Service report on “Removal of Inspectors General: Rules, Practice, and Considerations for Congress,” published on May 12.

“One of President Reagan’s first official acts upon his inauguration on January 20, 1981, was to remove all 15 confirmed and acting inspectors general then working across the executive branch,” the CRS report states. The report notes that the move caused “bipartisan concern,” which was alleviated some when Reagan renominated five of the former inspectors general and because the administration “made other commitments to support the inspector general system.”

Since then, however, no incoming president has removed inspectors general immediately upon taking office.

As for Trump’s speculation that “every president has gotten rid of probably more than I have,” that’s not accurate according to the CRS report.

According to the CRS report, between 2000 and 2020, there was only one instance of a president removing an inspector general. That was Obama’s removal of Gerald Walpin, the inspector general of the Corporation for National Community Service. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 11, 2009, Obama wrote that he no longer had the “fullest confidence” in Walpin (language later used by Trump for his firings).

A week later, the White House provided the Senate a letter with more detail about the reasons for Walpin’s firing, saying he was removed “after a review was requested by the bi-partisan Board of the Corporation.” At the time, there was speculation that Walpin’s firing was related to an investigation he led looking into misuse of federal grants by a nonprofit group headed by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and an Obama supporter.

That was the only case highlighted by the CRS report between 2000 and April 2020, when Trump removed Atkinson.

The report added the caveat: “It may be the case that other inspectors general have resigned under threat of removal. Because it is not possible to identify these cases with certainty from publicly available materials, they are not discussed here.”

For example, in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration, the Washington Post reported that Luise S. Jordan, the IG at the Corporation for National and Community Service, and Roberta L. Gross, the IG at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, officially resigned in February of that year. But according to the Post, “their departures were far from voluntary.”

In 2013, during the Obama administration, Charles K. Edwards, the acting inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security resigned three days before he was scheduled to appear at a Senate hearing to answer to allegations that he compromised his independence in his role as the agency’s top watchdog. A Senate panel later concluded that Edwards inappropriately had personal relationships with senior DHS officials and that he “altered or delayed” reports to “accommodate senior DHS officials.”

And in 2015, Gen. Richard Griffin, deputy inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs announced his retirement amid criticism of his handling of whistleblower complaints about VA operations. But neither of those involved Obama taking steps seeking formal removal.

McEnany Also Wrong

In an interview on “Fox & Friends” on May 19, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is only doing what Obama also did, and that “no one seemed to care then.”

McEnany, May 19: The president said yesterday that he told various departments who have Obama IG officials that it’s their decision whether to let that individual go. Secretary Pompeo made that recommendation and the president agreed with it. I would just note that when President Obama did the very same thing, when he fired IGs, when several IGs came together and wrote a letter saying, “President Obama you’re inhibiting our investigations.” You know, no one seemed to care then. But all of a sudden, when President Trump does what’s in his lawful authority, people are very upset about it.

But McEnany is mixing up some facts. As we noted earlier, Obama did fire an inspector general, Walpin — but that’s one, not plural “IGs,” as McEnany said.

And it wasn’t Walpin’s firing that prompted more than half of the inspectors general to write the letter cited by McEnany. Rather, the inspectors general were complaining about three federal agencies in the Obama administration that limited their access to records.

In the 2014 letter, the inspectors general said the Obama administration’s position that the records were privileged information creates “potentially serious challenges to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”

McEnany is wrong that “no one seemed to care” about the inspectors general’s letter critical of Obama. In September 2015, 12 senators — eight Republicans and four Democrats — introduced legislation to require agencies to provide “all records” requested by an inspector general. But a larger bill that included the provision never came up for a floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

As the CRS report notes, one of the most commonly discussed options to fortify the independence of inspectors general is legislation that would allow for the removal of IGs “only for reasons that fall within a provided definition of good cause.”

For example, the version of the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 that passed the House would have established inspectors general for fixed seven-year terms and allowed for removal “only on the grounds of permanent incapacity, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance, conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude, knowing violation of a law, gross mismanagement or waste of funds, or abuse of authority.”

According to CRS, “The Senate elected not to adopt this language based on the results of a comptroller general’s panel that identified concerns regarding forcause removal for inspectors general.”

Trump and McEnany are right that presidents have the authority to remove inspectors general, but they’re wrong when comparing Trump’s firings of IGs to Obama’s or past president’s actions.

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