The sneaky way the Trump administration is chilling government oversight

The inspectors general aren’t often in the news, but they’re a critical part of government oversight.

President Donald Trump speaks during a “Friends of Ireland” luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 16, 2017 CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump speaks during a “Friends of Ireland” luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 16, 2017 CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

With one party in control of both Congress and the White House, independent government oversight offices are more important now than ever — especially as President Donald Trump’s network of business entanglements pushes the American presidency deep into unprecedented ethical territory.

Trump, however, has shown little regard to the advice of independent offices, outright ignoring the advice of the Office of Government Ethics that he divest from his businesses. And, lost amidst the hubbub over his controversial policy initiatives, alleged ties to Russia, and ethical questions, the Trump administration’s policies and actions could have a crippling effect on the power of another critical watchdog group — the inspectors general.

There are 73 inspectors general spread across government agencies, where they are charged with serving as independent and objective watchdogs to root out waste, fraud, and abuse. By keeping watch over politically appointed agency heads and keeping Congress informed of any issues with government programs, they can also serve as a check on the White House.

According to other, nongovernmental watchdog groups, inspectors general themselves, and congressional Democrats, however, Trump’s policies and administrations have already had a chilling effect on the offices’ ability to fulfill their duty.

“Nearly two months into your Administration, I am already troubled by several actions that could hamper inspectors’ general ability to hold your Administration accountable,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) wrote in a letter Trump on Wednesday, which ThinkProgress obtained.

In his letter, Casey outlines three actions Trump has taken that impede the inspectors general.

In January, Trump transition team told inspectors general they would be out of a job soon.

The first, and perhaps most immediately shocking, is a story stemming back to January 13th, when multiple inspectors general received calls from Trump transition officials warning them that they should start looking for other jobs.

While some inspectors general are appointed by their agencies, a little under half are political appointees that must be confirmed by Congress. Unlike many other politically appointed positions, however, they serve open-ended terms. Their position is nonpartisan by definition and they aren’t supposed to have any loyalty to their nominating president.

As a result, it’s extremely unusual for them to be asked to leave their jobs by a new administration. In fact, that hasn’t happened since 1980, when Ronald Reagan dismissed all political appointees — including the inspectors general — in one fell swoop. As the position was created in 1978, Reagan was the first president to deal with a transition after the position was created. There was a massive outcry, and several of the dismissed inspectors general were reinstated.

None have been asked to resign during a presidential transition since — which is why many were shocked to be receiving calls from the President’s transition team telling them their position was only extended temporarily.

“There would undoubtedly be a chilling effect on their ability to perform their important work.”

“The not-too-subtle undertone was, ‘We can get rid of you if we want, so you should play ball,’” a Labor Department official told the Washington Post.

Or as Casey wrote in his Wednesday letter, “if Inspectors General felt threatened they could face retribution or be removed from their positions if they uncovered issues that might be unfavorable or embarrassing to the Administration, there would undoubtedly be a chilling effect on their ability to perform their important work.”

In response to the initial outcry, the Trump team insisted that the call was made in error by a junior employee.

A week later, however, Congressional Democrats and the Washington Post obtained an email from the Trump transition team instructing employees to make the calls — suggesting higher level involvement, and showing that the calls were intended to affect inspectors general across the government.

“There should be written assurances from the highest level possible in the White House that they are expected to stay on permanently.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, called the phone calls, even if the request was retracted, “part of a troubling pattern of misguided and politically-motivated attacks on government watchdogs, ethics experts, law enforcement officials, and career government employees.”

And since those calls, the White House has been relatively silent on the inspectors general.

“While it may have been a mistake for the Trump team to tell them that they should consider their positions temporary,” Nick Pacifico of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight told ThinkProgress, “there should be written assurances from the highest level possible in the White House that they are expected to stay on permanently.”

No such reassurance has appeared — meaning that any chilling message the inspectors general received could still be in effect.

Effective oversight is being undermined by the hiring freeze

Another of Trump’s first actions upon assuming the presidency was to enact a hiring freeze — which impacts staffing of the oversight offices, who were not mentioned in the exemptions.

According to later guidance issued to inspectors general, they are considered department heads and can choose which positions in their offices are exempt.

That guidance, however, still doesn’t completely solve the problem, Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency told the House Oversight Committee in a hearing on the subject, where he pointed out that the inspectors general usually save more money than they cost.

“Given our track record of returning to the Treasury far more money than we are budgeted, we believe careful consideration should be given before impacting our ability to root out waste, fraud and abuse,” he said in the February 1 hearing.

At that same hearing, four inspectors general told Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) that they had been forced to scale back oversight in response to the hiring freeze.

“It goes without saying that Inspectors General cannot effectively provide oversight of Federal programs and operations if they do not have the requisite workforce and resources,” Casey wrote to Trump on Wednesday.

Vacancies at the top

Trump also has yet to nominate over 500 presidential appointed positions — including nine inspectors general.

That’s not entirely unusual — President Obama, for example, drew flak during his presidency for letting the nomination of a permanent inspector general at the Department of State lag for five years.

But in light of the mounting questions regarding alleged contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors, the lack of inspectors general at key national security agencies has drawn attention. Currently, some of the agencies missing permanent appointees are the CIA, the Department of Defense, and the NSA.

In the absence of a permanent inspector general, the offices at these agencies are led by acting inspectors general. According to oversight experts, however, the offices need a permanent, Senate-confirmed inspector general.

“Executive branch agencies often punt on the big, controversial decisions when they lack Senate-confirmed leadership, and Offices of Inspectors General are no exception,” Pacifico told ThinkProgress. “Major investigations that could spark political controversy could be avoided while the Office of the Inspector General waits for a leader to come in that has the confidence of a majority of the Senate.”

That means that nominating permanent inspectors general is especially critical right now in light of the Trump administration’s Russia controversy.

Trump has also rescinded the inspector general nominations that Obama made later in his term who were still waiting for Senate confirmation — including Obama’s nominees for the Department of Defense and for the NSA.

That in and of itself isn’t terribly unusual, according to Pacifico.

“It’s the Trump White House’s prerogative to nominate anyone it deems qualified and well-suited for these positions,” he told ThinkProgress. He added, however, that Obama’s nominees were relatively noncontroversial and had strong bipartisan support. If Trump is looking for qualified candidates for the job, the people whose nominations he withdrew, said Pacifico, would be a natural starting place.

Trump, however, has spent his first 100 days mired in policy and PR disasters and hasn’t indicated a desire to make the hiring of inspectors general a priority.

Combined with the hiring freeze and his administration’s overall chilling message to government watchdogs, these issues are likely to result in an overall scaling back of government oversight — right when public trust in the government is at a historically low level and the Trump administration’s conflicts are putting American democratic ideals under unprecedented strain.

And that, say Casey and others, implies that impeding the inspectors general is just one more sign the Trump Administration “is seeking to make accountability a partisan issue and is yet another effort to dodge transparency and oversight.”