Legal Experts Examine Trump's Attacks on the Inspectors General

A GW Law expert panel discussed the president’s recent removal of inspectors general, acts criticized as opening the door to corruption in this and future administrations.

June 4, 2020

Donald Trump

(Photo by: Gage Skidmore)

By Tatyana Hopkins

While there is a long and bipartisan history of presidential administrations being “at best” skeptical of the institution of inspectors general and “at worst” firing them for “no clear sin” other than doing their job, the number and rapidity of inspectors general terminated and demoted during the Trump administration is unprecedented, said Clark K. Ervin, a former inspector general and now partner at Squire Patton Boggs.

Inspectors general run the oversight arms of federal agencies to prevent inefficient or unlawful operations such as fraud, waste, abuse or mismanagement of any kind at the organization.

Between April and May, President Donald Trump has removed five inspectors general including Michael Atkinson, who passed forward to Congress the whistleblower complaint regarding Ukraine that led to the House’s impeachment investigation; Christi Grimm, who released a report critical of the administration’s preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic; and Steve Linick, who reportedly launched an inquiry into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“If they serve for a long period of time, as many of them do, or have done until now, if they are doing their job correctly, they will ultimately conduct audits and investigations and come to conclusions that anger both Republican administrations and Democratic administrations,” said Mr. Ervin, a former inspector general of three federal agencies during the George W. Bush administration. “The difference today is that this kind of independent approach is very clear that it will result in your firing.”

Mr. Ervin discussed Mr. Trump’s removal of several inspectors general in a short time and the implication of these actions on the future of anti-corruption mechanisms during a webinar hosted Wednesday by the George Washington University Law School Government Procurement Law Program.

Christopher R. Yukins, the GW Law Lynn David Research Professor in Government Procurement Law, moderated the discussion, which drew an audience from five continents and at least 15 countries. A recording and materials from the webinar—including in-depth background on the current controversy—are online.

The panel of legal experts included Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; Lisa Rein, a Washington Post federal government reporter; and Jessica Tillipman, GW Law assistant dean for field placement and professorial lecturer in law.

“When it comes to U.S. anti-corruption mechanisms, there's the law and then there's an honor code or the norms,” Ms. Tillipman said. “The law is what's written in regulation and statute, and then there are just certain assumptions and expectations that we assume our public servants would adhere to even if it's not required by law.”

But now, she said, the Trump administration’s handling of inspectors general crosses a number of established ethical norms that are not laid out in legislative framework of the role. This includes firing with little cause and “dual-hatting” inspectors general by also allowing them to simultaneously hold programmatic roles within the agency, actions not explicitly prohibited in the statute but generally frowned upon.

Currently, the law only requires the president to provide Congress with 30 days’ notice to fire an inspector general and a reason, even if it as simple as “loss of confidence.”

Ms. Rein of the Washington Post said Mr. Trump started a “post-impeachment purge” of officials who had been involved in any impeachment efforts and many of the other nearly 30 president-appointed inspectors general believe it will continue, especially to those who investigate or criticize cabinet members close to the president.

Mr. Bookbinder said that “it almost doesn't matter whether the president fires more [inspectors general] because he's had the effect of silencing this community by basically saying if you do your job and perform investigations that are critical of me or my allies, you’ll get fired.”

He said the Trump administration has systemically attempted to undercut checks and balances, consistently refusing to allow witnesses to testify and hand over documents for congressional and agency investigations “on a scale unlike that we've seen from administrations from either party before.”

“This crisis of attacking inspectors general over the last several months comes after years of this administration working to undercut all forms of oversight and accountability,” he said.

Mr. Bookbinder discussed several reforms Congress is currently considering to give recognized norms the rule of law. This includes a “for cause” removal limitation, a legislative provision that would only allow the president to remove inspectors general only for serious and specific reasons such as permanent incapacity, neglect of duty or conviction of felony. He said congressional override of firing and outside review of firings are also being considered.

“We are in the midst of multiple competing crises in the country, and a sort of obvious question is why are we talking about inspectors general,” Mr. Bookbinder said. “[But] this is really important stuff that cuts to the core of our democratic system.”