Why inspectors general matter so much, and what makes Trump’s attack on them such a threat

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference following the Senate Republicans policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 19, 2020.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference following the Senate Republicans policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 19, 2020.(SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Competition and confrontation have deeper roots in American culture than in many other societies. Other cultures — say China or Sweden or Botswana or Italy — even when somewhat capitalist, rely more on cooperation. For this reason, the rule of law in the United States has to rely on checks and balances: controlling competition among political forces to assure that no individual can rule by personal fiat.
Federal inspectors general (IGs) have differed from overseas officers with the same title because institutional competition between our legislative and executive branches has created a space within which independent monitoring and reporting has a necessary role. Other kinds of cultural norms constrain misbehavior by public officials overseas — or don’t — but here, we rely on competition between the branches of government, supplemented with the IGs’ unbiased, objective information about the actions of public employees, to assure effective accountability.
Our IGs provide such information, reporting to both branches, and giving impetus to either branch to hold bad actors accountable for their actions. Because IGs’ information is an asset to both branches, if the president wants to remove one, he or she must give 30 days’ notice to Congress. The notion that underlies that requirement: if the president’s obvious motivation was preventing exposure of corruption, or retaliating for such exposure, too much political embarrassment would ensue.
President Trump has fired or announced he will fire four IGs in the last month and a half, seemingly without political embarrassment. These include: Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community IG, for dutifully reporting to Congress a credible accusation that Trump abused his power in dealings with Ukraine; Glenn Fine, the Defense Department acting IG, who would otherwise have automatically chaired the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, so that a Trump appointee would now monitor that spending; Christi Grimm, the Health and Human Services principal deputy IG, for releasing a report warning of the dire consequences of the pandemic; and Steve Linick, the State Department IG, apparently for pursuing evidence of abuse by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

This pattern should be suspect not only to members of Congress, but citizens as well.

IGs only work well if they have the independence to monitor and report as the facts lead them. If they happen to uncover and report facts suggesting fraud, waste, abuse or corruption, these findings should be a concern to all. Congress may act to investigate the problems exposed by IGs, but a president has room to react as well.

The exposure of corruption in an administration may be a bitter pill to swallow; however, it would behoove any president to use this information to remove bad actors and reinstate confidence in the government. Instead, the current president chooses to shoot the messengers, replacing the objective, independent IG with individuals more likely to be apologetics for the administration. Clearly, he sees the IGs as troublemakers who are launching personal attacks to embarrass him and his confidants.

If Congress and the Senate in particular permit this behavior, presumably because they have tested public opinion and determined that they can afford to do so, then American culture has truly become ready to abandon our cherished checks and balances. If so, the COVID-19 epidemic is not the worst threat to our American way of life. The undermining of our democratic ideals is.

The United States now turns to its citizenry to decry the undermining of the role of IGs in monitoring and exposing corruption. Otherwise, the executive branch will become unfettered and the president will move closer to despotism, right before our eyes.

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