The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump officials hindered at least nine key oversight probes, watchdogs said. Some may finally be released in coming months.

Children bike in an area in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, hit hard by Hurricane Maria in 2017. A government watchdog is probing whether the Trump White House blocked relief to the island. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Almost as soon as she opened a politically charged investigation in 2019 into whether the Trump White House blocked hurricane relief to a devastated Puerto Rico, the internal watchdog at the Department of Housing and Urban Development ran into obstacles.

HUD demanded that their attorneys sit in on witness interviews, a tactic inspectors general said was unusual and could shape witness testimony. White House officials told top agency appointees to withhold their communications, documents and interviews show. Other records took months to obtain.

Four months after Donald Trump’s defeat, Inspector General Rae Oliver Davis still hasn’t announced whether her investigators found that Trump inappropriately held up federal disaster aid from an island reeling from a brutal hurricane.

It’s far from the only politically sensitive work by government watchdogs — mandated by Congress to monitor federal agencies for waste, fraud and misconduct — that faced roadblocks or was otherwise dragged out during the Trump era.

Across the government, at least nine key oversight investigations were impeded by clashes with the White House or political appointees, people familiar with inspector general offices say and public documents show.

Long-anticipated reports were released only this month on two senior Trump officials. One found evidence that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao may have misused her position by repeatedly deploying her staff on personal business. A second concluded that former White House physician Ronny Jackson bullied his staff and drank on the job.

The timing meant their damaging disclosures emerged only after the former president left office and Jackson, a former Navy rear admiral, was elected to Congress from Texas.

Tensions between federal watchdogs and the administration they monitor are not uncommon. But 11 inspectors general or their senior aides who served under Trump, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal government deliberations, said hostility to oversight reached unprecedented levels during his time in office.

The result, they said, was that government hid wrongdoing from the public and important reforms to improve government efficiency were ignored. With Trump now out of office, advocates for government accountability predict other damaging revelations may only now begin to emerge.

“IGs under Trump faced an angry, account-settling president who had no compunction about removing those who threatened to reveal bad things about him,” said Gordon Heddell, a former inspector general at the Defense and Labor departments who served under Republican and Democratic presidents.

A spokeswoman for Trump declined a request for comment.

Former Trump administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal procedures said that the administration’s approach to inspector general investigations was to be cooperative, to resolve disputes whenever possible and was consistent with precedent and practice across previous administrations. They said the approach included consultation with the Justice Department.

Davis declined to discuss her review of housing aid to Puerto Rico.

Other overdue reports include an inquiry by the Commerce Department’s inspector general into the Trump administration’s controversial decision to add a question to the U.S. Census about citizenship.

Two long-running ethics probes of Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first interior secretary, remain in limbo more than two years after the president forced him out. The Pentagon watchdog has not released the results of a two-year audit of a $400 million contract to build the border wall that was awarded, at Trump’s urging, to a politically connected North Dakota construction company.

And the General Services Administration inspector general has blamed slow-walking by agency leaders for a delayed review of how federal offices handled the coronavirus last year.

Administration lawyers used various maneuvers to hinder oversight, according to documents, inspectors general and attorneys representing federal agencies.

Lawyers invoked the power of the president and top agency officials to withhold their confidential communications. They insisted on a seat at the witness table — or blocked employee interviews altogether. Documents were often released at the pace of dripping faucets — or not at all.

“There was a blatant attempt by the Trump White House to interfere with the work of IGs that we had not seen before,” said Nick Schwellenbach, an expert on the inspector general system at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan advocate for government reform.

Chafing under oversight

Federal watchdogs oversee roughly 14,000 auditors and investigators across government, with a broad mandate that ranges from routine audits of operations and spending to probes of possible criminal activity.

Thirty-eight of the 75 inspectors general who monitor the government’s largest agencies are by law appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress. President Biden has not yet made any nominations for any of the 13 of the jobs that are vacant and being filled in an acting capacity.

The offices the watchdogs lead, created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, have traditionally enjoyed political independence and wide powers to subpoena documents and interview employees to root out government wrongdoing. Inspectors general have no set term and many watchdogs serve for years, through multiple administrations.

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The work of these internal monitors has led to criminal prosecutions, forced the ouster of corrupt officials, and identifies millions of dollars a year in wasteful spending.

But Trump chafed under the 40-year-old oversight system, particularly after several of his Cabinet secretaries and top aides came under investigation. Last year he replaced five career watchdogs over two months with political appointees, starting with the intelligence community watchdog who had informed Congress of a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He also forced out the long-serving watchdogs at the State and Defense departments.

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Trump’s agency heads followed his lead. In a previously unreported incident, soon after he became secretary of Veterans Affairs in 2018, Robert Wilkie repeatedly implored the White House to dismiss Michael Missal, his agency’s inspector general, two people familiar with the communications said.

Wilkie claimed that the aggressive oversight was harming veterans who would be intimidated from coming forward with information about the agency’s shortcomings. The White House declined to act.

In a text message, Wilkie wrote that “the picture that the IG’s office consistently painted of VA was not the reality of the Trump VA but an effort to ignore our reforms by saddling us with responsibility for the shortcomings of the previous Administration.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he requested that Trump fire his department’s veteran inspector general, Steve Linick, who was ousted last year. At the time, Linick’s office was investigating several allegations related to Pompeo, including whether he had used staff to perform personal tasks. Pompeo has said he was unaware of the probe and the firing was not retaliatory.

Linick’s ouster stunned advocates of independence for inspectors general, Heddell said. “It was devastating to the IG community.”

The office is now on its third acting director in 10 months and, according to State Department records, at least a dozen senior positions are vacant or now filled by acting officials. The office is still conducting a number of investigations initiated while Trump was in office, spokesman Ryan Holden said.

Robert Driscoll, who represented several agency appointees targeted by watchdogs in the Trump era, said some inspectors general were overly aggressive. A veteran of tussles over inspector general oversight, he said that during Trump’s presidency, the watchdogs began to act beyond their authority, propelled by the polarized politics of the time.

“They engaged in investigations that appeared to exceed their mandate, delving in to political questions rather than legal or ethical judgments,” he said.

Driscoll added that federal watchdogs took “a Soviet-style position” when they pushed to limit participation of counsel in investigative interviews. “They were essentially arguing that targets of their investigations are not entitled to have counsel present,” he said.

Democrats in Congress, however, said key oversight was ignored or squelched by Trump. Three Democrats last week introduced legislation to expand the power of inspectors general, and they have discussed new protections to shield the watchdogs from being fired by the president.

They also are urging Biden to rapidly fill vacancies in the inspector general ranks, reversing a trend of leaving positions open that dates to Barack Obama’s presidency.

“It is no surprise that several critically important reports about the behavior and decisions of multiple officials are only now becoming public,” House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in an email, lamenting that many Trump officials “escaped accountability while in office.”

Clashes delay work

Last spring, General Services Administration Inspector General Carol Ochoa launched a routine review of how federal office buildings were handling coronavirus cleaning and whether agencies were informing employees when their colleagues tested positive for the virus. It was a vital concern for hundreds of thousands of employees still reporting to work amid the dangerous pandemic.

A person familiar with Ochoa’s thinking said she hoped to move fast to deliver quick results, while the crisis was still underway.

But as soon as her auditors posed questions to employees of the agency’s Public Buildings Service, administrator Emily Murphy and her staff created a committee of senior managers to handle all responses from employees involved in covid management for thousands of buildings.

Auditors became alarmed that the process was cutting out on-the-ground information, according to a warning Ochoa later released on the dispute. Five days before Trump left office, Ochoa released the rare but little-noticed “management alert” about the conflict. “GSA is impeding oversight of its covid-19 activities,” it was titled.

Employees were coached or instructed to modify their responses to auditors before they could be sent, the 14-page report said. In one case, an employee at first said a building had not been inspected for cleanliness because staff was teleworking but later was instructed to say the building had, in fact, been visually inspected.

“The [OIG] audit team has little assurance that the responses provided to our inquiries are complete, accurate, and reliable,” auditors wrote.

In the document, Murphy denied that employees were coached and said any delays resulted from efforts to provide audits with “complete and accurate information” and a need to “minimize the burden on front-line officials who are working overtime” to respond to the pandemic.

Ochoa declined to comment. Murphy, through a colleague, also declined.

Because of the delays, the audit on GSA’s coronavirus response is still underway. A spokeswoman for the office said it will be released when complete.

Across Trump’s government, similar clashes delayed other oversight work.

At the Commerce Department, an inquiry into why the agency added a politically charged question on citizenship status to the U.S. Census was held up for months by disputes over whether senior officials could disclose information about their White House contacts in interviews, people familiar with the process said. Top Trump appointees ultimately were not interviewed.

The Supreme Court ruled in June that the administration could not include the question on the once-a-decade population survey. The inspector general’s conclusions about the issue have still not been released.

“Although there is tension inherent in the oversight relationship, the efforts to include agency counsel in OIG interviews represents an improper and unwarranted intrusion into OIG operations and results in a chilling effect,” Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said in an email.

Similar disputes resulted in the long-delayed release in July of another politically damaging report from the Commerce watchdog. This one concluded that political pressure from the White House shaped a 2019 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration statement that supported false claims from President Trump about the path of a hurricane. The NOAA statement backed President Trump’s erroneous claims that Hurricane Dorian would probably severely impact Alabama — an incident known as “Sharpiegate.”

In that case, Gustafson publicly rebuked the agency for declaring “amorphous and generalized privileges” that prevented the document’s dissemination. Ultimately, her office ignored the agency’s objections and issued the report without redactions.

Another sensitive report, into Secretary Wilbur Ross’s finances, took 37 months to complete and was released in December, only weeks before Trump left office. It found that Ross made numerous inaccurate statements to federal officials about his assets and stock distributions before taking office but that they were not intentional.

Ross told Forbes that he was committed to the “highest standard of ethics” and the report had proved he did not violate conflict-of-interest statutes.

Gustafson said in an email that the Ross investigation had been “incredibly complex and time-consuming.” Even though the final report was published as Ross left office, she said it should help educate the public and Congress about “weaknesses in the current system” and act as a reference to future officeholders “interested in serving with integrity.”

Two inquiries into the conduct of another former Cabinet member, Zinke, are stalled because of the involvement of the Justice Department. Prosecutors convened a grand jury in February 2019 to examine whether Zinke made false statements to investigators who were looking into his decision not to grant a petition to two Indian tribes hoping to operate a casino, two people briefed on the matter have said.

Later that year, people familiar with the matter have said that Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, a Trump appointee, deferred a recommendation from line prosecutors to move forward with charges, finding that prosecutors needed to gather more evidence. The criminal matter remains formally open, however, preventing Interior Inspector General Mark Greenblatt from releasing his report.

The inspector general’s office declined to comment.

Complaint to Congress

At the Pentagon, the inspector general’s office took the unusual step of complaining to Congress in its semiannual report last year that the department’s process for deciding whether to make communications with the White House confidential was slow and had prevented the office from concluding projects “in a timely manner.”

The complaint to Congress revealed that a contracting investigation was stymied after the White House refused to release emails with more than a dozen key Defense officials. Two people familiar with the matter said the dispute related to the audit of the border wall contract, which was launched in December 2019 at the request of Congress.

Pentagon investigators complained in another report, published last April, that the White House had withheld communications that impeded their ability to definitively determine whether administration officials played a role in awarding a massive $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft.

The contract had been expected to go to Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post and was a frequent target of Trump’s ire. Overall, the report found no evidence of undue influence or pressure on Defense Department personnel in the awarding of the contract.

Defense Department investigators also were forced to suspend their field work on Jackson, the White House physician, for almost a year to address White House efforts to withhold confidential communications, according to the report issued earlier this month.

The report showed the administration also sought to place a White House lawyer at interviews of personnel who worked with Jackson. That case took three years to complete. Jackson, who was elected to Congress in November with Trump’s backing, denied allegations that he mistreated staff or drank on the job.

An investigation exploring former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s work for foreign interests — long delayed by the criminal case against him — was completed and forwarded to Army leadership seven days after Trump left office.

At Transportation, Trump officials helped orchestrate an extraordinary behind-the-scenes push to remake the leadership of the inspector general’s office, even as it pursued the particularly sensitive investigation of Chao.

When the longtime inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, announced his retirement in January 2020, the probe of potential ethical violations by Chao, the powerful Cabinet secretary married to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), was already underway.

For a time, administration officials pursued a highly unusual proposal to have a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Nashville serve simultaneously as the inspector general at Transportation. Ultimately, when other federal officials concerned about the independence of inspectors general objected, the White House tabled the plan and tapped the head of the agency’s pipeline oversight agency instead.

A spokesman for the inspector general’s office said no appointees in the office or wider department tried to thwart their work, and the Chao investigation “proceeded unimpeded with each change in leadership throughout the course of the last year.”

Released this month, the report found evidence of potential ethical violations by Chao, concluding she asked government employees to perform personal tasks, some of which were meant to aid her father, James S.C. Chao. A spokesman for Chao said accusations against her were baseless.

The deputy inspector general in December referred the case to the U.S. attorney’s office and the Justice Department for prosecution, though they both declined — each within 24 hours — to open an investigation.

At HUD, officials said the long awaited report on aid to Puerto Rico should be completed soon.

Stung by criticism from local politicians, Trump repeatedly said he did not want to send more aid to the island after it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. He questioned the storm’s death toll and denigrated the territory as “one of the most corrupt places on Earth.”

In April 2019, the HUD inspector general, a Republican, shared a memo with Congress in which she complained that the department had “unreasonably” delayed production of emails and other records. Colleagues of Davis said she told them the dispute was resolved after a series of acrimonious meetings and email exchanges between her staff and agency lawyers. A section of the HUD report will lay out attempts by the administration to interfere with its completion, a person familiar with its contents said.

Darryl Madden, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said, “We believe when the report is out it will speak for itself.”

Dan Lamothe and Alice Crites contributed to this report.