Republicans have been struggling to defend President Donald Trump’s crusade against administration inspectors general, a tactic to shut down independent scrutiny that the GOP undoubtedly would have decried under a Democratic White House. And on Monday, Trump admitted that he knew nothing of the reasoning behind his latest firing, completely blowing up the defense given just the day before by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
In an interview on Sunday, Johnson had defended Trump’s right to fire inspectors general. It’s important for inspectors general to have independence from the departments they investigate — in the case of the recently fired IG Steve Linick, the State Department — but not from the president, he said.
“I think their independence needs to remain within their agencies,” Johnson said. “They work and serve the president of the United States. So I take a slightly different view in terms of what they should be independent from. They need to retain their independence within the agencies, so they can do inspections and investigations and provide that to their leadership, but primarily to the president.”
Sen. Ron Johnson: “They serve at the president’s will — and that is true of every inspector general.” pic.twitter.com/gAAPZCgQDK
— The Hill (@thehill) May 17, 2020
“I don’t know the gentleman,” Trump said. “I was happy to do it, Mike requested that I do it.”
President Trump on firing State Department Inspector General: “I don’t know him at all. I never even heard of him. But, I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike…I have the absolute right as president to terminate.”
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 18, 2020
In a hilarious slip-up, Pompeo himself essentially said the same thing in an interview with the Washington Post. He was pushed on the fact that reports have emerged that Linick was investigating Pompeo personally, which the secretary denied knowing about. In the denial, he accidentally said he made the “decision” to fire Linick, then quickly changed that to “recommendation”:
“It is not possible that this decision, or my recommendation rather, to the president rather, was based on any effort to retaliate for any investigation that was going on or is currently going on,” he said. “Because I simply don’t know. I’m not briefed on it. I usually see these investigations in final draft form 24 hours, 48 hours before the IG is prepared to release them.
This slip of the tongue made it clear that the decision was 100 percent Pompeo’s call, meaning the IG had none of the independence from his own agency that Johnson supposedly believes is so important. And the fact that Cabinet secretaries can have their inspectors general fired for no reason undermines their independence throughout the executive branch, not just the State Department.
Pompeo also provided no plausible explanation for the firing, saying vaguely:
“I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department, very consistent with what the statute says he’s supposed to be doing,” he said. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”
In fact, this suggests that Pompeo feared Linick would make the department look bad — which is part of his job: uncovering internal wrongdoing.
But despite this transparent corruption of the purpose of inspectors general, don’t expect Johnson or other Republicans to hold Trump’s feet to the fire. They’ve proven they’re willing to let him get away with anything, no matter how much it humiliates them.