Our government’s Inspectors General pose one of the biggest threats to Donald Trump’s presidency. The IGs’ unique status as independent watchdogs that report both to their own agencies and to Congress make them a powerful tool to root out presidential abuse, fraud and corruption.
The Intelligence Community Inspector General triggered the House impeachment investigation by bringing forth the anonymous whistleblower complaint revealing that Trump pressured Ukraine’s new leader to publicly declare Kyiv was digging dirt on Joe Biden.
Multiple IG inquiries now bear down on Trump’s maladministration of our government, each gathering facts about Team Trump’s disregard for the rule of law.
Abuse of asylum seekers on our southern border is in the sights of the Department of Homeland Security’s IG. In a July report, he called on officials to take immediate action to alleviate “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults” in the Rio Grande Valley.
Team Trump’s conduct makes clear they want to suppress or distract attention from critical inspector general reports
The number of people border patrol agents apprehended there more than doubled to 223,000 from October 2018 and May 2019, compared with the same period a year earlier.
‘Egregious Violations’ and Little Discipline
A separate report the previous month cited “egregious violations” of standards at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in California and New Jersey. Yet another reported on a lack of oversight of misconduct and discipline.
In an August report, the Pentagon’s inspector general warned that without American troops in Syria the combined forces of Iraq’s army and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces would be “unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants” at a time when that Islamic group was increasing its attacks in the region.
That didn’t stop commander-in-chief Trump from abruptly tweeting a major change in Mideast policy on Oct, 7 that endangered both our national security and our elite troops in northern Syria. Trump tweeted without notifying the generals and blindsided even White House national security officials.
Turkey’s invasion forced our soldiers to flee so quickly that they left half-eaten meals, prompting Russian state television to mock our troops. American warplanes had to bomb our own nearby munitions dumps to keep the weapons from hostile hands.
Fierce criticism from Republicans led Trump to retreat and use American forces to prevent ISIS from gaining control of Syrian oil fields and perhaps seize them, which would be a crime under international law.
Curious Cloud Contract
The Defense Department Acting IG is investigating the Pentagon’s awarding of a $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft. Amazon had long been considered the favorite to win the business because it provides cloud services to the CIA. Trump has long attacked Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, accusing his Washington Post of spreading fake news.
Even Trump’s trade wars are getting close scrutiny. The Commerce Department’s IG office late last month warned Secretary Wilbur Ross that lax procedures mean that favored companies and industries could improperly influence department officials to win exemptions from the Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. And only days earlier IG Peggy Gustafson told Ross she lacked the staff to properly vet the huge increase in foreign investments into our country that the Trump administration is demanding to blunt China.
Team Trump’s conduct makes clear they want to suppress or distract attention from critical IG reports or even just making documents available to Congressional investigators. Last April Trump ordered his entire administration to largely ignore Congressional oversight, a core function of Congress under our Constitution’s system of checks and balances.
Inspectors General United
After Trump’s Justice Department tried to silence the Ukraine whistleblower in October, 67 of the 73 IGs rallied to the whistleblower’s defense.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had tried to silence the intelligence whistleblower, whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry. That drew a sharp rebuke from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
The IG’s letter warned that such suppression efforts “could seriously undermine the critical role whistleblowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, and abuse across the federal government.”
Significantly, the first of 67 signatures on the Oct. 22 letter came from the Justice Department’s own IG, Michael Horowitz.
That united public defense was an act of “bureaucratic bravery,” John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, told DCReport.
There’s no small irony in the activism of the IGs. Congress created these watchdogs in all cabinet departments and federal entities under a 1978 law, part of a wave of clean government legislation passed after the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign rather than face impeachment.
The inspectors general are unlikely to thwart administration policy, at least in the short run.
To Trump they provide a convenient foil, embodying what he claims is a “deep state” of unelected bureaucrats, a claim that fuels conspiracy theorists and fringe elements who claim our federal government is a criminal organization.
And they can’t force change, but their reports can motivate Congress and the White House to act. The Office of Personnel Management IG’s calls for tighter data security went unheeded until 2015, when during the Obama administration OPM revealed that suspected Chinese hackers had stolen sensitive information including Social Security numbers of nearly 20 million people who applied for government background clearances.
IG Budget Cuts
IGs have a unique independent status, reporting both to their executive agencies as well as to Congress. They also deliver real value, generating $14 in cost savings and fraud recoveries for every dollar they spent in fiscal 2018. That gives them clout and allies on both sides of the political divide.
Team Trump has cut IG budgets, as did Obama. They declined more than 7 percent over six years, to $2.5 billion in fiscal 2018, even as overall federal spending rose by more than 16 percent, to $4.1 trillion. That may explain why IG induced savings and recoveries fell to $36.2 billion, down 22% from $46.3 billion.
Today nine cabinet departments lack a Senate-confirmed IG, including the CIA, the Pentagon, Education, and Health and Human Services. A president who knows that IGs dig up facts which he has tried to keep hidden is, predictably, in no hurry to plug that gap.