Meadows became White House chief of staff seven weeks ago. In that time, President Trump has controversially replaced five inspectors general. Three of the removals carry readily apparent retaliatory motivations, while the other two had been named to a committee tasked with oversight of the coronavirus response.
And four of the replacements were announced on Friday nights, when politicians often announce things they hope will be overlooked and quickly forgotten.
The firing Friday night of State Department inspector general Steve Linick was the latest episode in this unfolding controversy, and it might be the most problematic to date. As The Washington Post and others reported this weekend, Linick had been investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the White House says Pompeo recommended the firing.
Thus far, the GOP response to all of this over the last month-plus has been rather muted. And Meadows isn’t the only one to shift from a champion of inspectors general to apparently more or less shrugging.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was pressed this weekend on the moves, and he downplayed them. “I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination: Let’s put it that way,” he told Jake Tapper on CNN.
But Johnson back in 2015 was a prominent supporter of the same bill Meadows had pushed: the Inspector General Empowerment Act. And he, too, hailed the importance of independent inspectors general not being stifled by the Obama administration.
“It’s just incredibly important to have permanent inspectors general that are completely independent that will provide Congress and the American public transparency and that watchdog assignment — that responsibility for departments and agencies — so that we have awareness of what’s happening,” Johnson said at a hearing on inspectors general that he chaired in 2015. “It’s the only way we’re going to be able to improve the efficiency, the effectiveness, the accountability of government is to have that type of transparency.”
At another point in the hearing, Johnson decried the act of “retaliating against people that were issuing reports” that their superiors didn’t like.
Now, Trump has removed three inspectors in apparent retaliation:
- Acting Health and Human Services Department inspector general Christi Grimm had issued a report on “severe shortages” of hospital equipment during the coronavirus outbreak — a report that Trump derided.
- Linick had issued a report critical of State Department officials and called an “urgent” briefing on Ukraine disinformation during Trump’s impeachment, in addition to reportedly investigating Pompeo for potentially using official staff for personal errands.
- The now-ousted intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, had forwarded the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump was asked about firing Atkinson, and he cited the complaint. “I thought he did a terrible job,” Trump said. “Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report … and he brought it to Congress with an emergency.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) might be one of the foremost advocates for inspectors general in recent decades in Congress. But as the removals have proliferated, he has offered only mild requests for more information to ensure the removals are appropriate. He sent a letter to the White House early last month, for example, but did not receive a response. Despite the lack of cooperation, Grassley has not invoked potential subpoenas or adjusted the tone of his comments.
In a brief statement Saturday, Grassley renewed his request for a justification. But he spent more of it criticizing Linick for his alleged failure “to fully evaluate the State Department’s role in advancing the debunked Russian collusion investigation.” The most direct criticism in the statement was reserved not for Trump, but for Barack Obama, who Grassley said “intentionally left [Linick’s post] vacant for the first four years of the Obama administration.”
But Grassley was more forward-leaning when Obama controversially removed an inspector general, Gerald Walpin, in 2009.
“I kind of get the impression that there’s kind of a crusade early on in this administration to, how would you say it, short-circuit inspectors general,” Grassley said shortly after Walpin’s firing. He at one point raised his voice, saying: “I mean it’s irritating — for a president that ran on transparency and accountability. He ought to be encouraging all this stuff, not being seen as an impediment.”
Walpin’s firing provides something of a parallel to Linick’s today. Just as reports indicate Linick was investigating Pompeo, critics in 2009 alleged that Walpin was removed because he had investigated Obama ally and then-Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Some in conservative media dubbed it “Walpin-gate.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it “smells of political favoritism and Chicago rules.” Then-Fox News host Glenn Beck was particularly keen on the controversy, while then-Fox Business Network host Rebecca Diamond mused, “Could the firing of federal inspector general Gerald Walpin become a major scandal for the president?” Sean Hannity passed along the news by saying Obama’s “suspicious firing of Inspector General Gerald Walpin is sparking outrage.”
Some of the criticism was more about the lack of justification, as required by law, than about alleged retaliation. Then-Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) was among those crying foul on the former count, for example. She eventually said she was satisfied with the rationale that was later provided by the White House.
But even that more technical criticism applies here. As Grassley and others have noted, the Trump White House has not done much to explain the removals. When Trump has weighed in, he has done plenty to suggest they were retaliation for specific actions that the inspectors general took (the ones bulleted above), rather than this being about some kind of performance issue.
Other GOP senators such as Rob Portman (Ohio) and James Lankford (Okla.) have urged Trump to take a different course. Perhaps the most full-throated criticism came this weekend from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who called the removals “unprecedented” and said they were “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”
But what’s become abundantly clear is that those more subtle efforts to rein in Trump have not had had any noticeable effect. And the contrast to where some of these Republicans — including Meadows — stood in the past on the vitality of inspectors general is increasingly remarkable as they stand aside and let it all happen.