Politics & Policy

Trump Removes the State Department Inspector General

Former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs after briefing House and Senate Intelligence committees in Washington, D.C., October 2, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
It would be better to reserve judgment until we know the reasons.

President Trump has ousted another inspector general, the fourth IG in the last six weeks. This time, Steve Linick of the State Department was cashiered. The White House says the president has his reasons for no longer having “the fullest confidence” in IG Linick. Perhaps . . . but it is curious how these removals always seem to happen late on Fridays, when administrations do things they’d prefer you didn’t notice.

I am not a fan of the institution of inspector general because it is constitutionally suspect, to say the least. An IG works in the executive branch, and is therefore subordinate to the president, yet reports to Congress. This is a hybrid that flouts separation-of-powers principles. Predictably, it has deleterious effects. Congress has become too dependent on the in-house IG at executive departments and agencies, atrophying its oversight muscles. The existence of the IG makes it harder for department and agency leadership to deal swiftly with misconduct. And because the IG answers to dual constituencies in political minefields, IG reports often suffer from on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand syndrome.

All that said, the institution is not going anywhere anytime soon, just as the administrative state’s distortion of the separation of powers seems to be a permanent feature of modern government — and modern governmental dysfunction. We should try to make the system work as well as it can, though its design flaws may make it increasingly irrelevant.

The Trump administration says that Linick was insufficiently aggressive in investigating the State Department’s role in promoting the bogus reporting of Christopher Steele, the former British spy and primary author of the Democrat-sponsored “dossier” that the Obama administration peddled to the FISA court and on Capitol Hill, while the Clinton campaign peddled it to the media. Trump critics counter that Linick was investigating whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had directed a State Department official to perform personal tasks for Pompeo and his wife; and that Linick had incurred the administration’s wrath by focusing on alleged retaliation by Trump political appointees against career officials.

Lawmakers from both houses and both sides of the aisle are already beginning inquiries into Linick’s sacking. In our tribal political culture, commentators are already lining up in the usual camps: Either Trump is draining the swamp of Obama appointees who are undermining his presidency, or Trump is tearing at the fabric of the republic.

It would be better to reserve judgment until we know what actually happened. It is possible that the president is engaged in a pattern of retaliation over the Russia investigation, his impeachment over the Ukraine kerfuffle, and criticism over his handling of the coronavirus emergency. And could the administration be trying to sweep potentially embarrassing conduct under the rug? Sure, administrations are wont to do that. Nevertheless, it is also true that the president’s capacity to govern has been damaged by heinous allegations that have turned out to be either baseless or greatly exaggerated; from his perspective, IGs have contributed to that damage.

Moreover, there are basic differences about governance at play.

Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah), the Trump nemesis and (voila!) current media darling, leads the pack railing about how Trump’s serial dismissal of IGs “chills the independence essential to their purpose.” This is the same constitutional illiteracy we heard throughout the Trump-Russia farce — Trump was supposedly compromising the independence of the FBI, notwithstanding that counterintelligence investigations, such as the Russia probe, are done for the president (in contrast to criminal investigations, which are done to uphold the rule of law).

Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), a Trump ally but a stalwart defender of IGs, has slammed the president’s rationale that Linick had to go because Trump had lost confidence in him. “Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG’s removal,” he said over the weekend. “A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.” Well, maybe. But it is entirely sufficient detail to satisfy the Constitution. Article II makes the president the sole custodian of executive power. He does not need any reason to remove an executive-branch political appointee, let alone a reason satisfactory to Chuck Grassley, Mitt Romney, and congressional Democrats.

Of course, if they don’t like it, if they think the president is abusing his powers, lawmakers have a variety of weapons at their disposal to deal with that problem — everything from blocking the president’s agenda and slow-walking his nominees to impeaching him. In that array of responses, most common is to conduct oversight hearings that could be embarrassing for the administration, especially in an election year, if Congress can show that IGs are being removed in order to conceal or promote abusive conduct.

Two things should be said in conclusion.

First, it was inevitable that IG positions would be politicized. They are designed that way, and the party out of power has always relied on IGs as a vehicle for addling the White House. President Trump is unusual in that he is willing to attack the premise that IGs are apolitical watchdogs who are just interested in good, honest governance, and that he removes them despite the protests that are sure to follow. One likely result of all this is subversion of the institution. In the future, especially when control of the White House changes partisan hands, presidents will likely remove IGs appointed by the opposition party and install their own nominees. Naturally, they will have less incentive to uncover waste, fraud, and abuse.

Second, all of the indignation over the removal of the State Department’s IG would be much more impressive if the same pols had squawked about President Obama’s failure to appoint a State Department IG during the notoriously ethics-challenged Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary. (If Romney made a 2012 campaign issue of that, I missed it.) The Obama White House was so aware of the potential for abuse in Clinton’s case that it crafted an agreement aimed at preventing Clinton Foundation exploitation of the State Department — an agreement Secretary Clinton characteristically skirted.

There may have been an email or two about that, but no one can find them.

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