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EDITORIAL

Congress must protect inspectors general

By removing and threatening federal watchdogs, Trump has shown that our nation needs stronger bulwarks against presidential retribution.

Michael Atkinson, the former inspector general for the intelligence community, was fired by President Trump in an act of apparent retribution.
Michael Atkinson, the former inspector general for the intelligence community, was fired by President Trump in an act of apparent retribution.ERIN SCHAFF/NYT

This editorial has been updated to reflect emerging news.

In a hopeful sign that there still exist lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are vertebrate animals, the kind with backbones, the president’s recent ouster of two inspectors general — and his threatening of a third — is setting off alarm bells on Capitol Hill. Legislators from both parties now seek answers from Trump about the removals. But politically motivated reprisals against government watchdogs merit more than mere questions. They reveal a system exploitable by an errant president, one that warrants stronger protection for officials who defend the public interest.

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Three recent events have raised concern:

▪ On April 3, President Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who had shepherded the whistle-blower complaint that asserted the president was coercing the government of Ukraine to investigate his political rival. The whistle-blower’s complaint led to the president’s impeachment by the House.

▪ On April 6, Trump removed Glenn Fine, acting inspector general for the Defense Department, from his post, disqualifying him from the role he was meant to play overseeing the disbursement of funds from the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress, some of which will go to the travel industry, in which the Trump family is invested.

▪ Also on April 6, after Christi Grimm, principal inspector general at the department of health and human services, published a report surveying more than 300 hospitals around the country and documenting severe supply shortages and testing delays, the president called it “just wrong” and questioned her appointment during a public briefing of the White House coronavirus task force.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a longtime champion for the independent oversight of inspectors general, wrangled a bipartisan group of lawmakers to sign a letter demanding an explanation for the firing of Atkinson, which was delivered to the White House.

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The bipartisan eyebrow-raising is justified and notable, at the very least as a deviation from a pattern of Republican lawmakers reflexively falling in line behind Trump. But the president has already publicly explained his reason for firing Atkinson; he told reporters that it was because the former inspector general had taken the whistle-blower report to Congress. And his reasons for questioning Grimm’s authority are also transparent: Her report underscored the failure of the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. To build public trust, lawmakers must do more than ask for an explanation for these reprisals. They must better insulate inspectors general who, as both Grimm and Atkinson have demonstrated, serve a critical role in surfacing uncomfortable truths about failures of government and abuses of power.

The idea behind the Inspectors General Act of 1978, which placed 12 such watchdogs across the federal agencies, was to ensure that presidents and their administrations acted ethically and with better oversight, and that corruption could be surfaced and adjudicated in the court of public opinion or in a court of law. In the 42 years that have transpired since the act, Congress has strengthened that oversight by expanding the number of inspectors general to more than 70, by better funding and staffing their offices, and by expanding their access to records. It could further strengthen their authority and protect their integrity today by strictly prohibiting the president from firing inspectors general unless substantial cause is documented and provided in advance to Congress, a shield that already exists for many executive branch employees. Lawmakers should also consider limiting the time that inspectors general can have acting status, as Fine had.

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“The president has adopted a calculated strategy of designating acting inspectors general instead of nominating permanent ones,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, told the Globe editorial board Thursday, “which gives him greater freedom to fire them.” Blumenthal, who will soon be proposing related reforms, said that “the magnitude of the threat” to the independence of inspectors general in the Trump administration is unprecedented.

Since the founding of the nation, Congress has recognized the need for independent watchdogs who oversee government operations and investigate wrongdoing. In 1777, the Continental Congress authorized the appointment of an inspector general for the American military, a role that George Washington as commander in chief had also argued was critical for informing his leadership of the Continental Army. It took a president of unprecedented dishonesty, however, to give rise to the modern version of the inspector general in the US government: Four years after President Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal, Congress created a network of these executive branch watchdogs to restore the public’s trust in government.

Now as we witness a new, historic degree of abuse of presidential power — and a commander in chief who has put inspectors general in his crosshairs — Congress must further embolden and protect the watchdogs of the executive branch. It is a necessary step for restoring the public’s faith, and for proving that the institutions of our democracy are in fact strong enough to withstand the autocratic and self-interested transgressions of individual leaders.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.