The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump removes federal watchdogs, some loyalists replacing them have ‘preposterous’ conflicts

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)

The political appointee President Trump installed last week to investigate waste, fraud and abuse at the Transportation Department is the same official in charge of one of the agency’s key divisions.

That means Howard “Skip” Elliott is now running an office charged with investigating his own actions.

Elliott serves simultaneously as the Transportation Department’s inspector general and head of the department’s pipeline and hazardous materials agency, whose mission includes enforcement of safety regulations on nearly 1 million daily shipments of gas, oil and other dangerous compounds.

“The idea that an independent IG could simultaneously be part of the political team running an agency they are supposed to oversee is preposterous,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

Elliott’s appointment was the fifth in two months in which Trump, chafing from oversight he perceived as criticism, replaced a career investigator with an appointee considered more loyal to the president. In three of the cases, Trump has installed new leadership drawn from the senior ranks of the agencies the inspectors general oversee.

For the first time since the system was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, inspectors general find themselves under systematic attack from the president, putting independent oversight of federal spending and operations at risk as over $2 trillion in coronavirus relief spending courses through the government.

Inspectors general, some in acting roles to begin with, have been fired and demoted with no notice, leaving their staffs in disarray, multiple inspectors general said. Adding to their alarm, several White House nominees awaiting Senate vetting for permanent roles do not meet traditional qualifications for the job.

Some say the 40-year era of independent oversight of the executive branch is under threat more than ever.

“The Trump administration is attempting to make lap dogs out of watchdogs,” said Gordon Heddell, a former inspector general appointed to audit the Labor Department — and later the Defense Department — by President George W. Bush and who continued to serve in the Obama administration.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump is stiffest challenge to Grassley’s role as defender of inspectors general

Past presidents removed federal watchdogs — but only occasionally. Lately, it’s been an almost weekly occurrence, leaving the offices that monitor wrongdoing across the government wary of who could be the next to go.

Elliott’s dual role at the Transportation Department is brimming with conflicts. Auditors who now work for him are monitoring the pipeline agency he leads. His boss is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao — whose department he is supposed to investigate.

Elliott has said he would recuse himself from investigations of the hazardous materials division, but backers of the independent watchdog system said that would not work.

“How could they receive whistleblower disclosures with a straight face?” Brian said. She noted that inspectors general have responsibility for protecting whistleblowers.

Trump, who often opts to appoint acting officials for indefinite periods, named Elliott acting inspector general. His sudden appointment on May 17, which pushed aside the career auditor leading the office on an acting basis, prompted an angry response from Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“It is an outrageous and obvious conflict of interest,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), who has questioned Elliott’s agency over its recent decision to allow freight trains to transport liquefied natural gas.

Removing Mitch Behm and installing Elliott, who spent decades as an executive with CSX Railroad before joining the Trump administration, was “an indiscriminate dangerous and potentially disastrous move,” DeFazio said. Elliott will also recuse himself from oversight of the railroad, officials said.

The watchdog office in fiscal 2018 put the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on a list of troubled divisions it would monitor.

In announcing an audit of the division’s safety culture last year, an assistant inspector general noted that in the previous five years, 3,319 U.S. pipeline incidents have caused an average of 15 fatalities and 62 injuries each year. In addition to monitoring hazardous shipments by rail, the division regulates 2.6 million miles of pipelines around the country.

Elliott also could find himself having to investigate his boss.

Before his appointment as inspector general, Elliott’s predecessors had been asked by congressional Democrats to investigate whether Chao used her office to provide political benefits to her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and whether she had sufficiently divested from international shipping interests controlled by her family. It is unclear whether those probes will continue.

A Chao spokesman called allegations of favoritism “a politically motivated waste of time that stemmed from a phony media story.” He said agency ethics officials advised Chao that the stocks did not create a conflict of interest, but she recused herself from all matters involving the companies and has since sold her investments.

Elliott, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Expansive view of power

Trump has made no secret of his hostility toward federal watchdogs, a number of whom were appointed by President Barack Obama. Trump has publicly denounced them for alerting Congress to a whistleblower complaint that triggered his impeachment, reporting shortcomings in his pandemic response and examining the actions of a loyal Cabinet member.

Among the biggest defenders of his actions is Attorney General William P. Barr, who told Fox News that the intelligence community watchdog overstepped his authority to report wrongdoing when he informed Congress of a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

Advocates for government oversight in both parties see a dangerous precedent in this expansive view of presidential power as Trump makes quick work of the professionals who’ve been bulwarks against corruption for four decades — some of them making history. The watchdogs, overseeing 14,000 auditors and investigators across the government, have a broad mandate that ranges from routine audits of operations and spending to investigations of criminal activity.

They are rarely popular with government leaders, who often complain or are embarrassed by reports calling for corrective action. As Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said at a recent American University seminar on government oversight, the jobs are as comfortable “as straddling a barbed wire fence.”

Thirty-eight of the 75 current inspector general roles are presidential appointees at large agencies, with all but one of those, the special inspector general for Afghanistan recovery, requiring Senate confirmation. The rest are designated by the heads of small agencies. The appointees have no fixed terms, and many have served for years. They occupy an unusual place in the bureaucracy: They are not political appointees who come and go with each administration, nor are they civil servants with protections from firing by a president angered by their work.

A president can remove a Senate-confirmed watchdog. Congress must get an explanation, not a legal justification, a loophole that’s rekindled discussion on Capitol Hill of the need to strengthen the community against the kind of rapid-fire dismissals going on now.

President Ronald Reagan attempted to fire and replace all serving inspectors general when he assumed office in 1981. But he backed off after bipartisan criticism and allowed many of the veterans to stay.

Obama dismissed one in his first term and, like Trump, left multiple positions without permanent replacements during his tenure. The congressional response to Reagan’s and Obama’s actions was swift and strong, with bipartisan complaints directed at the White House.

Over the past four decades, inspectors general have built political capital through high-profile accomplishments, some of which paved the way for reforms and led to discipline of top officials.

The Navy inspector general began in 2007 to uncover one of the largest contracting and national security scandals in military history, revealing that Leonard Glenn Francis, a Malaysian port official known as “Fat Leonard,” provided cash, luxury items and prostitutes to a large number of officers of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. They, in turn, gave him classified material about ship movements and information about Navy contracting and law enforcement investigations.

The resulting Justice Department probe produced 33 indictments, 22 guilty pleas and an admission by Francis that his company bilked the Navy of $35 million.

After a whistleblower alleged that the CIA was engaged in “war crimes” by using harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, Inspector General John Helgerson began a review of a secret program set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to question suspected terrorists. His investigation questioned the effectiveness of the CIA’s interrogation techniques. Senate investigators later relied on the disclosures as they probed the use of torture in a 7,000-page investigation.

“I don’t think you can overstate the importance of aggressive and independent inspector generals,” said Daniel J. Jones, the lead investigator for the Senate “Torture Report.” His role in the inquiry was memorialized in last year’s film “The Report.”

The Trump era has brought high-profile targets, too, from multiple Cabinet secretaries ensnared in travel scandals to Horowitz’s review of applications the FBI made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Among the most significant actions by a watchdog was that of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump, who had appointed Atkinson, fired him in April.

Atkinson was replaced in an acting capacity by Thomas Monheim, who took a leave from his job as general counsel of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, one of the divisions his office is now monitoring for wrongdoing.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried early last year to fire her agency’s acting inspector general, who was scrutinizing her role in promoting for-profit colleges, and install her deputy general counsel. The plan was scuttled after an outcry from congressional Democrats.

Firings rattle watchdogs

When asked last week why he fired Steve Linick, the well-regarded State Department inspector general, Trump said, “I have the absolute right as president to terminate.” That’s true. His dismissals have, however, breached a norm of independent scrutiny established over four decades.

Four days after axing Atkinson, Trump removed the acting Defense Department inspector general, Glenn Fine, from a new role as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, created to watch over relief spending.

Three weeks later, Trump pushed aside Christi Grimm as the top watchdog at the Health and Human Services Department after she released a report disclosing hospitals’ struggles to obtain basic supplies during the pandemic. Then Trump fired Linick, 24 hours before demoting Behm at the Transportation Department, on the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Congressional Democrats say Linick was investigating Pompeo for misuse of department staff and had been asked to review his efforts to use an emergency declaration to justify the sale of $8 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo complained to the president and asked him to remove Linick.

Linick’s replacement also will be in charge of investigating himself, and he has made no effort at recusal. Stephen Ackard, a political appointee and an ally of Vice President Pence, is keeping his position as head of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, another conflict decried by congressional Democrats.

The office supports more than 800 U.S. embassies and consular offices around the world, operations that are routinely audited. A few months before Ackard took over the Office of Foreign Missions last year, Linick’s staff issued a hard-hitting report citing vacancies and management failures in the office.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The firings have rattled the community of federal watchdogs, who have pledged to their staffs that they will not back down on tough investigations. But there is deep anxiety in their ranks, according to four inspectors general who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

The first wave of Trump nominees the Senate confirmed for watchdog roles had traditional résumés for the job, either leading large staffs or working their way up through the inspector general community. But recent nominees to high-profile inspector general offices, including at the Defense Department, HHS and the CIA, have far less leadership experience. They lack a deep background in auditing or investigations, raising concerns about whether they can succeed in roles they may not be prepared for, according to four current watchdogs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

After Trump demoted Fine at the Defense Department, the government’s largest watchdog office, he appointed Sean O’Donnell to lead it on an acting basis. O’Donnell, a former Justice Department trial attorney, had served only four months as the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general when the White House told him he would be leading both offices.

In the past, inspectors general have received bipartisan support. But most Republicans have been muted following Trump’s recent actions or joined in the presidential criticism.

Senate Democrats joined House members in calling for limits on a future president’s power to fire inspectors general. The latest pandemic relief bill passed by the House contains language that would restrict the removal of a watchdog to neglect of duty or malfeasance.

“Where are my Republican colleagues?” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D- N.Y.) asked last week on the floor as he denounced the removals. “They are so afraid of President Trump, they cling, almost, to his ankles.”

As Schumer spoke, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) released a letter to the president that asked for an explanation of Linick’s removal. Inspectors general, Grassley wrote, “should be free from partisan political interference from either the Executive or Legislative branch.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also took issue with the firings, citing “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power” in a tweet after Linick’s removal.

But as of last week, no Republicans had joined Democrats in calling for a permanent fix to give the inspectors general more protection.