Updated on May 18 at 4:42 p.m.
President Donald Trump’s Friday-night firing of Steve Linick, the inspector general for the State Department, is more than a scandal about alleged abuse of office by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state—though it is that.
It’s more than a scandal about the Trump administration’s decimation of the inspector-general corps, with four firings in the past six weeks, including the inspectors general for the intelligence community and for the Department of Health and Human Services and the acting inspector general for the Defense Department—though it is that too.
In context, the war on inspectors general is the third and final front in Trump’s war on any kind of check on the executive branch. In the past few months alone, the White House has argued that Congress doesn’t have the right to oversee the executive branch. It has sought to convince courts that matters of oversight shouldn’t be decided by the judicial branch, either. And in going after inspectors general, an accountability mechanism embedded in the executive branch, it is staking a simple but sweeping claim: No one has the right to check the executive outside of quadrennial elections.
Understanding the Linick story requires parsing the odd structure of the inspector general’s role. In 1978, as part of its post-Watergate reforms, and following a string of scandals, Congress installed inspectors general in a dozen federal agencies and departments. At the time, President Jimmy Carter touted them as “important new tools in the fight against fraud,” and promised them “significant independence.” They are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They can be fired by the president, but not by the heads of the agencies they’re assigned to investigate. Inspectors general can’t impose corrective action on their own, but they deliver reports to Congress about internal findings of their agencies.
Unsurprisingly, this makes them frequent antagonists for administrations. Presidents don’t want de facto moles poking around in their business and sending potentially embarrassing or damaging information to Congress, and each president since inspectors general were established has looked for his own ways to dodge them. In 2016, for example, The New York Times’ editorial board scolded the Obama administration for stonewalling inspectors general.
Though the Trump administration is sometimes described as an anomaly in American governance, it actually has a great deal in common with other recent administrations, only on steroids. Barack Obama tried to stonewall IGs; Trump has dramatically escalated that effort, firing them left and right.
There are several problems specific to Linick’s firing. First, there are suggestions that he was fired because he was investigating whether Pompeo illegally used government employees to run personal errands. (This would be in keeping with the behavior of many other Trump Cabinet members, who have tried to live the high life on the taxpayer’s dime.) We don’t know whether the claims are true—in part, of course, because the person in charge of investigating them has been abruptly fired. Greg Sargent reports that Linick had also mostly completed an investigation into Pompeo’s circumventing Congress to allow the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Second, although Pompeo doesn’t have the power to fire the IG, Trump seems to have acted at Pompeo’s request. Pompeo’s explanations for the ouster, to The Washington Post, indicate at best a complete misunderstanding of the role of the inspector general, and more likely a startlingly brazen explanation of the firing. The secretary told the paper that Linick “wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to” and was “trying to undermine what it was that we were trying to do”—i.e., was doing his statutorily mandated job.
Third, if the president does fire an inspector general, he’s required to inform Congress 30 days ahead of the scheduled removal. According to NBC News, Trump wrote to Congress on Friday, “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General … That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.” But the GOP senators Susan Collins, who authored the need-to-inform requirement, and Chuck Grassley, who leads the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, both said that Trump’s explanation was insufficient.
On Monday, Trump both confirmed that he was asked to fire Linick—though he did not say by whom—and admitted he had no particular problem with the IG other than his original appointment. “I don’t know him,” Trump told reporters. “Never heard of him. But they asked me to terminate him. I have the absolute right as president to terminate. I said, ‘Who appointed him?’ and they say, ‘President Obama.’ I said, ‘Look, I’ll terminate him.’”
If the alleged motivations for this firing—allegations of abuse against Pompeo, and Trump’s desire to squash a potentially damaging scandal—are relatively straightforward and venal, the stakes are much larger than whether Pompeo had diplomatic-security agents pick up lo mein. The same is true of the administration’s other moves to stymie oversight.
There’s little indication that Trump has any particular ideology about government other than his belief that he, personally, should be allowed to do what he wants. But the Trump administration has become a stalking horse for executive-power maximalists, led by Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr. Advocates of the so-called unitary executive have sought to harness Trump’s efforts to avoid accountability for his own specific corruption and lawlessness in order to enshrine a more powerful executive branch generally.
Barr has long viewed post-Watergate reforms meant to limit the executive branch as disastrous and unconstitutional. Inspectors general are a perfect example. As the Miller Center at the University of Virginia argued in a 1998 report:
IGs must also report to Congress twice a year, which means they are subject to two masters, in that they serve as members of the Executive Branch yet report to Congress about the internal workings of their agencies. They serve, in other words, within executive agencies as Congressional ferrets of dubious constitutionality.
Unitary-executive advocates complain that too much oversight impedes the executive branch’s ability to make policy as it wishes. In the case of Trump’s impeachment for extorting Ukraine to try to obtain the announcement of an investigation of a political rival, they argued that the president was simply conducting foreign policy, and Congress had no right to intervene.
Whether this applies to the State Department situation depends in part on the reasons Linick was fired. If he was investigating the Saudi arms sales, unitary-executive types will argue that was legitimate foreign policy. If he was investigating abuse of staff, then there’s no such high-minded excuse available.
It’s heartening that Collins and Grassley have both called for Trump to better explain his move, but the past three years have shown that although Republicans in Congress are willing to initially tut-tut the White House’s more extreme assertions, their resolve often disappears quickly, and they’re unwilling to take concrete action. It would be a surprise if GOP senators actually demanded that the White House do more, and forced it to.
The meekness of Republicans in Congress during the Trump administration has gone a long way to allowing the demise of meaningful oversight of the executive branch. Since Democrats took over control of the House of Representatives in 2019, they have attempted to investigate the Trump administration on multiple fronts. The White House made clear from the start that it would try to stonewall these investigations and run out the clock. For the most part, it has succeeded. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case where the House has attempted to obtain the president’s tax returns; it seems plausible that even if the House prevails, it will not get the returns before the November election.
Trump’s attorneys, including both his personal lawyers and, at times, the Justice Department, have advanced a sweeping and astonishing argument. In court, they have argued that these cases are not within the ambit of the judicial system, because the presidency enjoys privileges against ordinary prosecution; only Congress can exercise oversight.
Yet when Congress has tried to conduct that oversight, Trump has objected and said it’s usurping prosecutorial authority. The White House counsel announced bluntly that it would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, because it had unilaterally deemed it “illegitimate,” without offering any constitutional or legal standard. That earned Trump an impeachment count for obstruction of Congress, but the GOP-led Senate shrugged it off, along with the separate count of abuse of power.
The lesson Trump has taken from his Senate acquittal is that he doesn’t have to cooperate with Congress; at the worst, he can force the House to go to court, dragging out the oversight process to untenable length. In recent weeks, as the Democratic House has requested testimony from members of the administration’s coronavirus-response team, the White House has demurred, saying they are unavailable—though some were allowed to testify before the Republican Senate.
If Trump’s decimation of the inspectors general is allowed to stand—and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be—it will remove one of the last remaining checks on the executive branch. Trump has neutered Congress’s ability to conduct oversight, and even if he has not convinced the judiciary that it cannot be involved—indeed, some judges have laughed his attorneys out of court—he has managed to neuter it with foot-dragging as well. The inspectors general, as executive-branch officers with a conduit to Congress, were a remaining check, albeit a weaker one. This no longer seems true.
In practice, that leaves only one check on the executive branch: the ballot box. Voters can decide to eject a lawless president from office—but only every four years, and even then only after a first term: A second-term president would find himself without any accountability at all. It is almost impossible to reconcile this vision with the checks and balances laid out by the Founders, but what the Trump administration has found is, there’s no need to reconcile it. All it has to do is enact it.
During his confirmation hearings as attorney general, Barr acknowledged that a president could commit a crime. Working together with Trump, he’s just ensured that there’s very little chance a president would face any justice.