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The White House thumbs its nose at GOP critics of inspectors general purge

President Trump has fired a record number of inspectors general, an institution set up to restore public trust in the wake of Watergate. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump’s purge of inspectors general began nearly two months ago. As it has progressed, GOP critics have pleaded — often gently — with the White House to substantiate the moves.

On Tuesday, the White House effectively thumbed its nose at them.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a longtime advocate for inspectors general who has recently prodded for more information about the purge. Grassley has said the White House’s substantiation — that the inspectors general had lost Trump’s confidence — is insufficient and it needs to say more.

Cipollone for all intents and purposes declined. In the letter addressing the removals of intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson and State Department inspector general Steve Linick, he reiterated the loss-of-confidence rationale, said it was legally sufficient and declined to offer any further justification.

“When the President loses confidence in an inspector general, he will exercise his constitutional right and duty to remove that officer — as did President Reagan when he removed inspectors general upon taking office and as did President Obama when he was in office,” Cipollone wrote. He went on to cite legal precedent and suggest the matter is settled.

But those historical comparisons don’t completely align. For one, Reagan’s removals of what were then all 13 inspectors general in 1981 were controversial, but they came at the start of his term — before the IGs had the opportunity to take actions that might have been retaliated against, which is what Trump stands accused of doing. They also came three decades before Congress in 2008 passed a law that sought to remove politics from the IG process and required a president to inform Congress of the justifications within 30 days.

The Obama comparison is perhaps more apples-to-apples. But Cipollone’s portrayal of that situation leaves out some extremely important context.

In his letter, Cipollone compares the present situation to Obama’s removal of inspector general Gerald Walpin:

Indeed, President Trump’s notices to Congress used language similar to that used by President Obama when he removed Gerald Walpin as Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service. The President explained that he “no longer” had “fullest confidence” in their abilities to serve as inspectors general. In Walpin v. Corp. for Nat'! & Cmty. Servs., the D.C. Circuit held that language “satisfies the minimal statutory mandate that the President communicate to the Congress his ‘reasons’ for removal,” and acknowledged that the statute “imposes no ‘clear duty’ to explain the reasons in any greater detail.”

Cipollone’s citation of the court case is accurate, but it ignores what else happened with Walpin — and what the court held about it.

Obama’s use of the loss-of-confidence rationale for Walpin’s removal was indeed criticized, including by some Democrats such as then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.). But rather than stick with that justification and move on, the White House offered a detailed letter laying out its case. Among the reasons provided by then-White House special counsel Norm Eisen were:

  • That Walpin became “confused, disoriented and unable to answer questions” at a board meeting.
  • That a U.S. attorney filed a complaint that he had withheld exculpatory evidence.
  • That he had been “disruptive” and “engaged in other troubling and inappropriate conduct.”

Whether any of those claims were accurate or substantial enough to warrant Walpin’s removal (which he fought, unsuccessfully), they were detailed justifications — the kind of justifications Cipollone is pointedly declining to provide.

Those reasons may not be necessary from a legal perspective, as the case Cipollone cites suggests. But he ignores another key portion of the decision.

Indeed, immediately after the part of the decision Cipollone cites, the decision continues:

In fact, the Congress intended that the thirty-day notice requirement provide an opportunity for a more expansive discussion of the President’s reasons for removing an inspector general. … And this is precisely what occurred here.

It isn’t really what’s happening here. While the law allows a president to provide such a “minimal” justification for removing an inspector general, that 30-day window, which the Walpin court case alluded to, is key.

“There’s little they can do to actually prevent the president from removing a presidential appointee,” watchdog Walter Shaub recently told NPR. “But the purpose of the law was to give Congress 30 days to raise the stakes for the president, the idea being that they would either shame him publicly, and it would cause a public reaction that would cause him to back down. Or they would use more direct leverage, like refusing to confirm his nominees.”

That’s the leverage Congress has in this case, but only if it chooses to exercise it. With Cipollone practically shrugging off the whole thing and telling members like Grassley to pound sand, the ball is now in their court.

What’s even more remarkable about Cipollone’s letter is that Grassley essentially volunteered potential justifications for Linick’s firing, but Cipollone opted not to use them. It’s apparently an attempted power play — one in which Cipollone is daring these members to push harder and believes they ultimately won’t.

Either that, or the White House worries that delving into its actual justifications will inevitably point in the direction of retaliation — which Trump’s own comments certainly have.