Trump transition officials last Friday phoned inspectors general in at least a handful of Cabinet departments to indicate that they could soon be removed from their posts, a break from the bipartisan tradition of letting inspectors general stay in their jobs as long as they are willing.
The Trump transition team contacted inspectors general in the Treasury and Labor departments, and at least one other key department that confirmed the approach as long as it was not identified.
After some IGs protested, a more senior member of the Trump transition team ordered a new round of phone calls within days to reassure the inspectors general that they would not be forced from their posts.
The confusion is another indication of how parts of the Trump transition team appear unfamiliar with the workings of the federal government. And it underscores the sometimes tense relationship between the incoming administration and portions of the federal workforce, which could lead to friction after Trump takes office.
Any effort to oust inspectors general is likely to spark a political backlash. The last time a president removed all inspectors was when President Ronald Reagan did so in 1981, dismissing all the IGs at the time. The move drew sharp attacks from lawmakers and the public; Reagan later rehired five of those inspectors general.
“It bespeaks a tone-deafness about the importance of inspectors general and keeping them as nonpolitical actors who can clamp down on waste, fraud and abuse,” said Michael Bromwich, who served as an inspector general in the Justice Department from 1994 to 1999 and directed the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement under President Obama. Bromwich now leads a strategic consulting firm, the Bromwich Group.
In an email, the office of the Treasury Department inspector general noted that recent precedent suggests the presidential transition will not affect its leadership.
“In the past few decades, incoming administrations have not indicated expectations that IGs should resign, and generally IGs have not resigned,” the office said in an email.
Trump transition officials did not reply to emails seeking their comment. Trump lambasted House Republicans earlier this month for time spent attempting to weaken a congressional ethics office.
Following scandals in federal programs, inspectors general were placed in a dozen agencies by an act of Congress in 1978. The law tasked the inspectors general with conducting audits and investigations of their departments and issuing reports to Congress and their agency heads. Their goal is to ferret out deficiencies and problems for corrective action. Today there are 73 inspectors general, nearly half of whom are appointed by the president, while the rest are appointed by their agency chiefs.
Reflecting their nonpartisan role, inspectors general typically stay in their positions when presidential administrations change.
Eric M. Thorson, the Treasury Department inspector general, was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2007. Earlier he worked for the Air Force Department, for Republicans in the Senate and for the Small Business Administration.
Thorson spokesman Rich Delmar said the inspector general “was contacted by a member of the Treasury transition team and advised that he would be temporarily extended after January 20.”
There is no such thing as a temporary extension for an inspector general. To remove an IG, the president must submit his plan 30 days in advance with Congress. This has happened only once in 35 years.
An official in the Labor Department said a similar sequence of events happened there, with a junior member of the transition team notifying the department’s inspector general that he would get a temporary extension.
“The not-too-subtle undertone was, ‘We can get rid of you if we want, so you should play ball,’ ” said the Labor Department official, who asked for anonymity to discuss matters related to the transition.
A spokesman for the Labor Department’s inspector general later contrasted this account, saying a discussion of that nature did not take place.
The inspector general in another major Cabinet-level agency also received a call from the Trump transition saying he could stay temporarily. That same person, however, made a subsequent call to say the first call was a mistake. Like other inspectors general, that one is planning to remain in office.
Not all inspectors general were contacted: Nancy DiPaolo, who directs external affairs for the Interior Department’s IG office, said her office did not receive such a call and held a “normal” meeting with the transition team last week.
After the initial round of calls, some IGs, including Michael E. Horowitz, who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill in an effort to get additional information from the transition team about its plans. Horowitz, who serves as the Justice Department’s inspector general, declined to comment for this article.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who authored a bipartisan law last year that made it easier for inspector generals to gather evidence and pursue cases, said in an email he was informed of the situation.
“Inspectors general play a key role in keeping the federal government open and honest,” Chaffetz said. “They must be empowered with the tools they need to effectively do their job.”
At least one lawmaker interpreted the series of phone calls in a positive light. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in an email it was a “good sign that the incoming administration listened to people who understand the important role that inspectors general play.”
Grassley has proposed legislation that would strengthen the abilities of inspectors general to gain access to departmental documents.
“There are already nine vacancies among the 33 presidentially appointed IGs,” Grassley said. “President Trump will be able to choose nearly a third of the IG community, and he should focus on filling those positions quickly rather than wait for years like the Obama administration did with some vacancies. Independent, nonpartisan IG’s can be some of the president’s best allies in finding and cutting waste, fraud and abuse in the bureaucracy.”