Trump’s purge of inspectors general, explained

By Jen Kirby

State Department Inspector General Steve Linick at the Capitol building in Washington, DC, on October 2, 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General,” President Donald Trump wrote to congressional leaders in a letter dated May 15. “That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”

That inspector general was Steve Linick, who held that job at the State Department from 2013 until Trump dismissed him earlier this month.

Trump didn’t offer details about why he’d lost confidence in the agency’s watchdog. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that he’d recommended that Trump fire Linick, who was, in Pompeo’s words, “undermining” the department. He did not go into specifics, but reporting suggests Linick might have been looking into Pompeo’s treatment of a staffer, and the justification for a Saudi arms deal.

Linick isn’t the first inspector general Trump says he has lost confidence in recently. Since April, Trump has fired two permanent IGs and replaced three acting inspectors general.

This has raised fears that the president — who has balked at pretty much any form of oversight during his tenure — is now targeting the watchdogs serving in his administration. Especially those who, in the course of doing their jobs, embarrass the president and his close associates or implicate them in wrongdoing.

Trump does have the power to fire inspectors general, who, as executive branch appointees, serve at the pleasure of the president. But IGs are tasked with auditing and investigating that same executive branch — a job that could become increasingly challenging if these officials face retaliation for what they audit and investigate.

Congress and the American people rely on inspectors general, at least in part, to help the government run more efficiently and fairly. Inspectors general do not always succeed in this aim, but undermining the institution could be detrimental to oversight.

That is a threat always, but especially during a time of widespread crisis.

What are inspectors general?

Inspectors general are basically internal government watchdogs. Broadly, they combat waste, fraud, and abuse within government agencies, keeping both agency heads and Congress informed of their findings through audits and investigations. What they cannot do is make policy, though ideally their investigations and reviews will help inform policymaking and implementation.

An IG’s work can be huge and high-profile, like Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review of the Russia investigation. Or it can be a bit more, well, technical-sounding, like this inspector general report on “NASA’s Compliance with the Improper Payments Information Act for Fiscal Year 2019.” All of it is intended to show where the government might be failing and how it can work better.

Congress officially established these oversight positions in 1978. The law was passed in the post-Watergate reform era, but experts told me attempts to establish some sort of oversight within executive branch agencies predated that, as had concerns about mismanagement and abuse in the federal government.

IGs were originally assigned to just 12 federal agencies, but that has since expanded to 74. Inspectors general are appointees. For Cabinet-level agencies (like State or DOJ), the president nominates a person and the Senate must confirm them. At some smaller agencies, the agency head appoints the IG directly and no Senate confirmation is needed.

Congress designed these roles to be slightly different from that of the average political appointee. “The original legislation built in a number of signals, if you will, that this person was supposed to be independent,” said Charles A. Johnson, professor emeritus of political science at Texas A&M University and co-author of US Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times.

Inspectors general, Congress said, should be selected “without regard to political affiliation” and “solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability” in fields like financial management, law, and public administration.

In 2008, Congress reformed the IG law, adding provisions that would, ideally, better protect the independence of inspectors general. The law formalized a Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an organization of all IGs that examines best practices and promotes professional development.

This reform law also included a provision that said a president must give Congress 30 days’ notice if he intends to dismiss an IG, and that the president must provide a reason to congressional leaders.

When Congress made that rule, it generally had little experience with a president outright firing an inspector general. Unlike other presidential appointees who come and go with different administrations, inspectors general tend to stick around.

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, he fired all the inspectors general, many of whom were career federal employees. His press secretary claimed at the time that Reagan wanted to hire his own people, who would be “meaner than a junkyard dog when it comes to ferreting out waste and mismanagement.’’

Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — pushed back, warning about the politicization of the IG role. In the end, Reagan ended up hiring back at least five of the 16 he had dismissed. When George H.W. Bush took office, he sent the standard letter to presidential appointees asking them to step down, but the IG community protested, citing their independence. Congress backed them up, and Bush dropped the issue.

Congress’s longstanding bipartisan support of IGs helped establish this norm. Inspectors general are responsive to Congress, unlike other administration officials who can play coy with lawmakers. IGs also facilitate Congress’s oversight job, which is particularly nice if you’re a lawmaker of a different party than the administration. That doesn’t mean Congress always has a copacetic relationship with individual IGs; in fact, Congress has a decent track record of putting pressure on inspectors general to resign.

But overall, Congress has defended the institution. And so, largely, have presidents and agency heads. IGs help point out inefficiencies, save taxpayer dollars, and keep the government honest. Officials frequently embrace and implement an IG’s recommendations or reforms.

Tensions do arise, however, because IGs have leeway in what they investigate, and sometimes those investigations can be embarrassing or particularly damning for top officials.

As former Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Ervin told me, “If you’re an inspector general and you do your job correctly, and you’re one of those inspectors general who wind up serving for quite a long time, then over time, you’re going to alienate Democratic administrations and Republican administrations. You’re going to alienate Democrats in Congress and Republicans in Congress.”

IGs, then, have to be sensitive to both Congress and the executive branch. They can’t always keep them happy, but they do have to navigate pressures from both. It’s what Texas A&M’s Johnson called “walking the barbed wire fence.”

Who has been fired (or replaced)?

Trump has fired two confirmed inspectors general: Linick, as discussed above, and Michael Atkinson, who was the inspector general for the intelligence community. Trump has replaced or moved to replace three other acting inspectors general from their jobs; however, since they were serving in an acting capacity, the personnel shuffle could be done without notifying Congress.

Each of these dismissals — and particularly those of Linick and Atkinson — stank of retaliation, as the IGs had recently taken actions or instigated investigations that embarrassed or had the potential to embarrass Trump or his political allies. That is, historically, precisely what Congress has wanted to avoid: the politicization of these watchdog roles.

Here’s who’s been fired, and the circumstances that led up to their dismissals, in the general order it went down:

Michael Atkinson, inspector general for the intelligence community

Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general since May 2018, was abruptly dismissed by Trump in early April. Trump, in his notification to Congress, said he had lost confidence in Atkinson.

But Atkinson seemed to be the latest in a string of officials who’d been dismissed from their roles for doing their jobs in the course of the impeachment investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Atkinson had notified Congress of a credible whistleblower complaint of “urgent concern” regarding an inappropriate phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. That whistleblower complaint helped spur the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

There had been rumblings for some time that Trump wanted to fire Atkinson, whom he blamed for being disloyal and getting him caught up in the impeachment inquiry. Trump waited, at least, until after he was acquitted in his Senate trial — and as the country was distracted by an escalating coronavirus crisis — to fire Atkinson late one Friday evening. And though Trump told Congress he had lost confidence in the IG, he was much more candid with reporters.

“I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible,” Trump said at a press conference in April. “He took this terrible, inaccurate whistleblower report and he brought it to Congress.”

Atkinson was placed on administrative leave immediately, which basically mooted that 30-day window the president is required to give Congress. Atkinson was also pretty blunt about why he thought he’d lost his job.

“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 said in a statement.

He added that it was his job to ensure whistleblowers feel protected when they follow the proper channels to raise concerns. “Inspectors General are able to fulfill their critical watchdog functions because, by law, they are supposed to be independent of both the Executive agencies they oversee and of Congress,” Atkinson said.

Top Democrats decried Atkinson’s ouster. Sen. Mark Warner (VA) warned that Americans should be “deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation’s intelligence agencies.” A bipartisan group of senators asked for more information from Trump on why he fired Atkinson and chastised him for putting Atkinson on leave. But that was about it.

Glenn Fine, principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Defense

After Congress passed its $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package in March, the CIGIE tapped Fine to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), which he would take on as an additional role. Fine’s job would be to police fraud and waste in distribution of funds and implementation of the legislation.

But shortly after Fine was appointed in late March, Trump replaced him as acting DOD inspector general, putting the then-inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency, Sean W. O’Donnell, in that role. Trump then nominated Jason Abend, a senior policy adviser at US Customs and Border Protection, to take over the role permanently.

According to the White House, Abend has experience working in offices of inspectors general, including at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But some good-government groups have questioned his experience managing and conducting oversight at an agency as sprawling as the Defense Department.

But back to Fine. Trump’s decision to replace Fine as the acting DOD IG meant Fine was disqualified from overseeing the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. (DOJ Inspector General Horowitz is currently serving as acting director of the PRAC.) When asked about Fine’s removal, Trump insinuated that he was an “Obama holdover.”

“We have a lot of IGs in from the Obama era,” Trump told reporters. “And as you know, it’s a presidential decision.”

“But when we have, you know, reports of bias and when we have different things coming in. I don’t know Fine. I don’t think I ever met Fine,” he added.

Fine kept his position as principal deputy inspector general (basically, he got to stay on as second-in-command). But on Tuesday, he resigned from his post, effective June 1.

“The role of Inspectors General is a strength of our system of government,” Fine said in a statement. “They provide independent oversight to help improve government operations in a transparent way. They are a vital component of our system of checks and balances, and I am grateful to have been part of that system.”

Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general, Department of Health and Human Services

Christi Grimm, the principal deputy inspector general at HHS, took the job in January 2020 and became acting IG. Though relatively new to this post, Grimm has worked in HHS’s Office of Inspector General since 1999.

In April, Grimm gained the president’s attention after her office published a survey on US hospitals’ preparedness for the pandemic, which found that some facilities would struggle to treat Covid-19 patients because of shortages in personal protective equipment and poor testing capacity.

By this point, the HHS inspector general was one of a chorus of officials, experts, and health care providers who had called out the US’s problems with testing, PPE scarcity, and more. But when asked about the HHS IG report at a press conference, Trump replied: “It is wrong.”

“So give me the name of the inspector general,” Trump responded, when a reporter asked about the report. “Could politics be entered into that?”

The next day, Trump complained on Twitter about the IG, tying her to the Obama administration despite her being a career official. “Another Fake Dossier!” Trump wrote.

Trump has since nominated Jason C. Weida, an assistant US attorney in Boston, to take over the permanent job at HHS. Grimm, unlike Fine, is not being replaced in the acting role and will remain until Weida’s confirmation.

On Tuesday, Grimm testified before the House Oversight Committee. She said that her office was still pursuing at least 14 reviews of the administration’s pandemic response. The previous report, she told lawmakers, was “just the beginning of the work” her office was doing on the coronavirus response.

“I personally and professionally cannot let the idea of providing unpopular information drive decision-making in the work that we do,” Grimm also told lawmakers via videoconference.

The politicization of the IG also came up in the hearing. The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, praised the work of Grimm and other IGs, saying, “Congress must protect [IGs’] independence in order to ensure that they are able to do their jobs without fear of retaliation.”

Ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), meanwhile, said any allegation that Grimm was removed “for issuing a report is simply incorrect.”

Steve Linick, State Department inspector general

On a Friday night in May, Trump notified Congress that he had lost confidence in Linick, who’d served as the State Department inspector general since 2013. Beyond that, Trump did not offer a reason for firing Linick, and the note sounded a lot like the one the president had sent when he removed Atkinson from the job.

Linick’s firing immediately drew outrage from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who suggested that the administration might be retaliating against Linick because he’d reportedly opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Soon after, congressional aides told reporters that Linick had been looking into whether Pompeo had been using a State Department appointee to run personal errands for him and his wife, including making restaurant reservations and walking his dog. Additionally, Linick may have been examining a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia that had sidestepped Congress.

Trump later said Pompeo had recommended that Trump fire Linick. “I don’t know him. Never heard of him. But I was asked by the State Department, by Mike,” he told reporters. He also made reference to Linick being an Obama appointee.

Pompeo confirmed to the Washington Post that he’d asked Trump to fire Linick, but he denied that it had anything to do with an investigation into his actions at the State Department.

“I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department, very consistent with what the statute says he’s supposed to be doing,” Pompeo said. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”

Brian Bulatao, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, also told the Washington Post that Linick’s office was believed to be the source of media leaks (though they had no evidence that Linick himself was behind them) regarding an investigation into whether State Department appointees had retaliated against career officials. However, a review by the Pentagon Inspector General last year found no evidence Linick or his office were involved in the leaks, according to CNN.

Officials also faulted Linick for failing to promote Pompeo’s State Department “ethos statement” laying out employees’ mission at the agency. (The ethos statement had been panned by some career officials, who felt it was unnecessary given that officers already take an oath to the Constitution.)

Linick had also previously issued reports that showed political appointees retaliating against career officials, including one who referred to them as “Obama holdovers” and “traitors.” And Linick released a report in September that said Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, had targeted employees they perceived to be loyal to Obama.

Though Pompeo denied that he had retaliated against Linick, he defended the decision to fire Linick, telling reporters, “I frankly should have done it some time ago.”

Pompeo did confirm that he had answered questions from Linick’s office in writing, though he did not go into specifics. But he dismissed the allegations that he was under investigation. “Someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. I mean, it’s all just crazy,” Pompeo said, being purposely obtuse.

Mitchell Behm, deputy inspector general for the Department of Transportation

As Linick was abruptly fired, the Trump administration also quietly removed the acting inspector general for the Department of Transportation, Michael Behm.

Behm had been serving in the acting role since February, but Trump replaced Behm with another official, Howard “Skip” Elliott, who is serving as the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration within the Department of Transportation.

Top Democrats objected to the move, calling it the “latest in a series of politically motivated firings of Inspectors General.” Behm had also been serving on the Pandemic Response Accountability Commission until his removal as acting IG.

Democrats are investigating Behm’s ouster, and they’ve questioned whether he was removed because he was looking into whether Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao had given preferential treatment to the state of Kentucky when evaluating infrastructure grants, among other things. Chao is married to Kentucky senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats also fretted about the person tapped to be Behm’s replacement as acting IG. Elliott currently holds another position at the Department of Transportation, which could amount to a conflict of interest, as both positions aren’t exactly part-time jobs. Trump did nominate a permanent replacement for the DOT inspector general job: Eric Soskin, a Justice Department official, though Elliott will presumably serve until he’s confirmed.

Is Trump’s purge extreme?

Trump has the authority to fire presidential appointees, but presidents have largely refrained from ousting IGs outright. IGs have certainly resigned, though — some under pressure from presidents, some under pressure from Congress, and some because fellow IGs found they weren’t doing their job.

But for presidents, it’s really not a great look to fire the people tasked with investigating your administration. And historically, Congress’s bipartisan strong advocacy for inspectors general made it a risky and controversial move.

Besides Reagan’s attempt to dismiss all the IGs upon taking office, the one exception to this rule — until Trump, that is — was President Barack Obama. In 2009, Obama fired the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service, Gerald Walpin.

Obama notified Congress that he planned to remove Walpin, but both Democrats and Republicans objected to the manner in which he did so — which was by writing: “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.” (Guess we know where Trump got the form letter from.)

Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill criticized Obama for failing to give a reason for Walpin’s ouster.

Walpin had recently led an investigation into federal grants given to a nonprofit that was led by then-Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who was also an ally of Obama’s. That investigation had alleged that the grant money had been misused, and Walpin had referred Johnson for possible criminal charges. The US attorney’s office ultimately disagreed with the referral and criticized portions of Walpin’s investigation, though the nonprofit did pay make some of the funds.

Obama officials ultimately went back to Congress with more details, saying that they had removed Walpin at the request of the bipartisan Board of the Corporation, and said that after a May 2009 board meeting, Walpin had been “confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve.”

White House officials also said Walpin had insisted on working from home in New York and had displayed “troubling and inappropriate conduct.”

Republicans still seized on Obama’s sidelining of Walpin; Fox News host Glenn Back even gave Walpin a senility test on air. Walpin sued to get his job back, but the courts ultimately declined to reinstate him to his position.

Walpin’s firing was controversial at the time, and Congress pushed back — even if it ultimately broke down along party lines. But that was the last IG fired until Atkinson was ousted in April.

Which is why Trump’s recent dismissals of Linick and Atkinson are so unusual. The White House has provided no additional details on why they were removed — though, with Atkinson, Trump has basically admitted he wanted him out of the job for fielding the whistleblower complaint.

Linick and Atkinson were clearly dismissed; the other cases are a bit squishier. Fine, Grimm, and Behm were all serving in acting capacities. Trump has every right — and both Democrats and Republicans alike would probably say the responsibility — to nominate permanent inspectors general to various offices.

Kathryn E. Newcomer, a professor of public policy at George Washington University and co-author of U.S. Inspectors General, told me that vacancies have become a real problem in IG roles, a phenomenon that really picked up during the Obama administration.

Acting IGs often don’t have the authority or stature of Senate-confirmed officials, and that can diminish the credibility of IGs or their work, even though the acting inspectors general in question, like Fine, may have stellar credentials and deep experience working in the IG community.

So generally, relying on acting IGs isn’t ideal. But the problem with Trump’s reshuffle is that his comments and behavior don’t exactly indicate he’s eager for and interested in robust oversight. He’s accused long-serving IGs of being Obama administration holdovers, though they are career officials. (And, even during the Obama administration, their job was the same: to investigate.)

Trump has bristled at oversight throughout his presidency, seeing it not as an opportunity for reform but as a personal attack. And though Congress will ultimately vet his picks for the permanent roles, Trump has removed some of these qualified acting IGs and replaced them with handpicked and unvetted successors in the interim.

Why does this matter?

Trump’s purge of inspectors general is dangerous because it threatens to undermine the independence of the office and politicize the institution.

That could have a chilling effect on the work of inspectors general. Inspectors general might become reluctant to initiate studies or audits, and agency heads may ignore findings of mismanagement or worse uncovered by IGs, Newcomer told me. “The agency head may feel like, ‘Oh, we don’t really need to worry about implementing these recommendations because, worst comes to worst, we’ll just have the IG fired,’” she said.

Congress has been one of the main bulwarks against too much interference in the offices of inspectors general. And sure, the motivation isn’t purely unselfish: IGs, in fielding requests from Congress, are often conducting the investigations lawmakers wish they could. But their support still helped protect the community and prevented some of the antagonism between administrations and inspectors general from spilling over into the types of attacks happening now.

And Congress had previously helped restrain Trump’s worst impulses about IGs. Before Trump took office, his transition team reached out to some inspectors general, asking them to step down. The IGs protested, and some reached out to Congress for help from Republicans, who pushed back. Trump dropped that effort.

Trump’s firing of inspectors general now shows the limitations of even Congress’s bipartisan support for the institution. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have objected to the manner in which Trump fired Atkinson and later Linick. Some, such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), have been more forceful in their criticism than others. “The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” Romney tweeted. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” (Trump called Romney a “loser” on Twitter.)

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — who’s historically been a big advocate for IGs — wrote a letter to the White House asking for more information about why Atkinson and Linick were dismissed. The White House Counsel responded that, basically, Trump had lost confidence in the two officials and that it was his prerogative to fire them if he wished.

Grassley said Tuesday that the White House’s response was insufficient. “If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is,” Grassley said. “Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability.”

Grassley also objected to the placement of political appointees in acting roles, which raises concerns about conflicts of interest.

But his objections might not matter. Congress does have some tools here: They could investigate or hold hearings. Democrats are doing that, but the moves would probably have much more weight and meaning if they were bipartisan affairs. And so far, Trump’s Republican allies in Congress have been reluctant to push the president too hard. Expressions of concern have rarely motivated him to change course.

Trump’s actions have revealed the limitations of the current law to protect IGs. During the 2008 reform, lawmakers introduced a provision that IGs could only be removed for cause, such as neglect of duty or violating the law. That wasn’t included in the final bill. Some experts I spoke to said Congress might want to consider that again, or potentially adding term limits to an IG’s tenure, something that stakeholders had previously thought was unnecessary. But that was before Trump upended these norms, too.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.