The president learned “a pretty big lesson.” That was the assessment of Senator Susan Collins of Maine in early February after she voted along with the vast majority of her Republican colleagues to acquit the president of the impeachment charges against him.
But if President Trump has learned any lesson from his acquittal this year by the Senate, it’s that Collins and almost all her Republican colleagues lack the backbone to punish him for abusing the powers of his office, whether it takes shape as holding up foreign aid for personal political favors or as firing perceived enemies. Emboldened rather than chastened, Trump is now purging the federal government of the independent inspectors general who hold the executive branch accountable for carrying out the duties of public service with integrity and for acting within the confines of the law.
With Friday night’s firing of Steve A. Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, the Trump administration is building a veritable trophy wall decorated with the heads of government watchdogs. Until congressional leaders work up the nerve to respond with something stronger than finger-wagging, there’s no reason to think this abuse of presidential power will stop.
Since his impeachment acquittal by the Senate, President Trump has removed four inspectors general, including one who shepherded the whistle-blower complaint that led to his impeachment, one who published a report documenting severe shortages of COVID-19 test kits and masks in hospitals nationwide, and one who was set to oversee the disbursement of $2.2 trillion in stimulus funds to businesses around the country. Now, with the removal of Linick, who had recently launched an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged unauthorized use of a government employee for personal errands including dog-walking and who had nearly completed an investigation into Pompeo’s skirting of Congress to complete an $8 billion arms deal last year with Saudi Arabia, the president has roused even the tepid Senator Collins. She noted that the president has probably broken a 2008 law by failing to justify to Congress 30 days in advance his intention to remove an inspector general. But the objections of Collins and her colleagues will ring hollow unless Congress is willing to hold the White House truly accountable for its attack on watchdogs rather than merely pay lip service to their ostensible independence.
Unlike traditional political appointees, inspectors general are nonpartisan government officials whose job it is to uncover wrongdoing and defend the public interest and the rule of law. Their existence in the US government dates back to the founding of the nation, when the Continental Congress appointed an inspector general for the American military, a role also called for by George Washington. After Watergate, the Inspectors General Act of 1978 created roles for these watchdogs across federal agencies as a check on corruption in the executive branch; they now number more than 70.
“The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented,” Utah Senator and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict Trump in February, tweeted on Saturday. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” The same day, congressman Eliot Engel of New York and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey launched an investigation into the firing of Linick.
Congressional inquiries into all the recent firings of federal watchdogs are warranted, as are hearings in both the House and Senate to air the circumstances that led to the firings. In the case of Michael Atkinson, the former intelligence community inspector general,Trump has already publicly admitted that he removed him for turning over to Congress the whistle-blower complaint about the president’s “perfect” phone call with the president of Ukraine — the document that spurred Trump’s impeachment by the House. Congress need not dig deep to discover that the president’s ousting of federal watchdogs reeks of political retribution.
Just as critical as such investigations, however, is to lay bare to the public that these firings are more than the sum of their parts, that they amount to a White House intent to punish critics and silence dissent and that, regardless of the nuance of each individual case, they in total represent an unparalleled abuse of the power of the presidency. Congressional committees should summon not just the individual former inspectors general but parade the full roster of fired watchdogs before the public at once so that the scope of the White House overreach can be appreciated.
Still, it’s not enough for members of Congress simply to ask questions and make public statements about these firings. Because the Trump White House has repeatedly shown itself to be inured to congressional scrutiny and unmoved by public backlash to its transgressions, it’s past time for Congress to use its constitutional power to withhold funds for presidential projects and White House activities to curtail the attack on federal watchdogs. If leaders on Capitol Hill have the courage to exercise the power of the purse, they may yet be able to accomplish what impeachment proceedings could not: forcing the president to stop exploiting the power of his office, at least when it comes to independent oversight. The rest will be up to voters in November.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.