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Examining Trump's Firing Of Another Government Watchdog

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is how the president defended his decision to fire the State Department inspector general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I don't know him, never heard of him. But they asked me to terminate him. I have the absolute right as president to terminate.

INSKEEP: Now it is common for the president to assert he has the right to do something. It is a different question whether the action is right. A congressional source tells NPR News that Inspector General Steve Linick was fired just after completing an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's decision to move ahead with a Saudi arms deal. Congressional aides also say Linick was looking into allegations that Secretary Pompeo was using State Department staffers for personal errands. On the line with us now is Walter Shaub. He was the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics from 2013 to 2017. Good morning.

WALTER SHAUB: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Hasn't the president fired several inspectors general recently?

SHAUB: He has. And it's starting to look a bit like a purge.

INSKEEP: Let's think about who they are. There's Linick of the State Department. Michael Atkinson was the intelligence community inspector general who was involved in the whistleblower case that led to the president's impeachment. Then there was Glenn Fine, the inspector general of the Department of Defense, who was going to oversee coronavirus spending efforts and was suddenly removed. Do you have reason to suspect any of these individual cases as being in some way suspicious?

SHAUB: In each of these cases, the inspector general or, in some cases, acting inspector general was engaged in investigative activity and ran afoul of the administration for doing their jobs. That undermines one of the core investigative oversight mechanisms that exists to prevent corruption in the government. And it's deeply concerning.

INSKEEP: Well, let's get back to the president's defense. Regardless of whether it is right to do this, is it correct at least the president has the right to do this?

SHAUB: It's troubling because when Congress created the inspector general program and amended it to strengthen the independence of inspectors general, they indicated in Senate and House committee reports that an inspector general could be fired by the president but that their expectation was that it would only be done for performance problems or malfeasance. And they expressly said that it needed to be guarded against that a president would retaliate against them for doing their job. They actually strengthened the program in 2008 by requiring the president to give 30 days' notice before firing them. And it's important to remember that Linick has not been fired. He will be fired if things continue down this path. And it's the job of Congress to use the 30 days they gave themselves for the purpose of preventing retaliatory firings.

INSKEEP: Are you saying, then, when you talk about the intent of Congress here that this may be an illegal act by the president?

SHAUB: It's unfortunately not illegal under the Constitution. There's little they can do to actually prevent the president from removing a presidential appointee. 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. And as things stand right now, it would only take four Republican senators to join with the Democrats and refuse to confirm his appointees unless he backed off on firing Linick and reinstating one of the other inspectors general that he fired last month, Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general.

INSKEEP: In your mind, from what you do know about the allegations here, how important is it to keep Linick in his job?

SHAUB: This is extremely important because right now, every last inspector general in the government is asking themselves, and my own inspector general, or am I a survivor? And if I'm an inspector general, I'm going to do the job knowing full well that I'm going to be fired if I uncover anything important. If they're a survivor, they may keep the job. They may lose it anyways, but they'll lose their integrity. And having worked closely with the inspectors general, I know that most of them will make the decision to be inspectors general. But I don't think that's a position Congress should let the president put them in.

INSKEEP: Shouldn't the president have some right to put somebody in a position that he feels he can trust?

SHAUB: What the president means by trust and what he means when he says he has confidence in an inspector general is that he trusts them not to do their job and embarrass his administration. He trusts them to only go after low-level career officials and not his appointees. We may as well not have inspectors general if we're going to allow administrations like this one to install loyalists who are not going to do the work because inspectors general are the people's eyes inside the government. They are the ones who investigate to uncover wrongdoing and, in many cases, safety hazards that could jeopardize public health.

INSKEEP: Mr. Shaub, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

SHAUB: Thanks.

INSKEEP: Walter Shaub was once the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.