Should the president of the United States be immune from accountability to the American people? Our Founders spent a great deal of time at the Constitutional Convention debating how to prevent the office of president from becoming an autocratic one. The behavior of King George III was very much on everyone’s mind. He was, after all, the reason for being in Philadelphia in the first place.
The authors of the Constitution designed a system of checks and balances that relied heavily on the legislative and judicial branches to limit the power of the executive. There is a long history of laws that go beyond the foundational separation of powers to ensure accountability of government to the public, including the Freedom of Information Act, various “sunshine” laws, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the Inspectors General Act.
Accountability, which may sound to many like an antiseptic business term, is a complicated concept that is absolutely essential to, as Abraham Lincoln put it, a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
We are now living in a country in crisis — with triple threats: a major pandemic, an unprecedented economic downturn, and nationwide protests and civil unrest sparked by the most extreme form of police brutality possible. But the very kind of accountability needed today is in jeopardy. One of the most egregious examples is the assault on independent, non-political federal network of inspectors general, created by the Congress and charged with ensuring the enforcement of laws and protection against waste, fraud and abuses of executive power.
Donald Trump’s famous declaration, “YOU’RE FIRED! — once heard ad nauseam on reality TV, has now becoming a weapon in his presidential tool kit to avoid accountability. He has fired or pushed out numerous members of his own Cabinet and senior staff, which is his prerogative, but going after essential non-political government watchdogs is not his right.
In mid-May, a major hubbub erupted in Washington, D.C., over the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. It was widely reported that Linick’s undoing came because Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Trump to intercede. It seems that Linick was nosing around into possible misdeeds — some minor and at least one (questions about arms sales to Saudi Arabia) that was anything but trivial.
Virtually lost in the haze of the ensuing outrage over Linick’s dismissal was the demotion or sidelining of the IG at the Department of Transportation, Mitchell Behm, which came about two news cycles after Linick’s sacking at state. What earned Trump’s enmity toward DOT’s Behm? Apparently, he was investigating possible conflicts of interest involving Secretary Elaine Chao (who, it might be noted, is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky).
The first casualty in the war on IGs was Michael Atkinson, of the intelligence community, who — as required by law — reported to Congress a whistleblower’s report about the possibility of illegal behavior by the president in his “perfect” phone call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. More recently, the president widened his scope to include other agency watchdogs, including the acting IG at the Department of Health and Human Services, who had conducted a survey of hospitals in the U.S. in order to determine their needs amid the current coronavirus pandemic.
Immediately after that action, Trump demoted the Defense Department’s acting IG, Glenn Fine, in order to prevent him from leading the oversight of the $2.2 trillion program to help people who have lost their jobs and employers who are struggling to stay afloat. Fine, a respected government career professional who had served as IG at the Justice Department before moving to DOD, said that he was resigning rather than accept the demotion. The loss is the nation’s.
All of this has caused a bit of a stir even among Trump’s usually quiescent and compliant Republican supplicants in Congress. As reported by Politico in mid-April, two influential GOP senators sounded the alarm about Trump’s “hostility” toward the government’s internal watchdog. The two senators, James Lankford and Rob Portman, sent a letter to the White House urging the appointment of permanent replacements instead of using temporary fill-ins designed to circumvent the Senate confirmation process.
Their letter brought to mind the day in October 1978 when Jimmy Carter (in whose administration the authors were both proud to serve) signed the bill creating the IG system in the first place. Flanked by congressional leaders of both parties, President Carter said:
“I think it’s accurate to say that the American people are fed up with the treatment of American tax money in a way that involves fraud and mismanagement and embarrassment to the government. I consider, and these members of the House and Senate behind me consider, the tax money to be a matter of public trust….
“[The new Inspectors General] will come under the Hatch Act to prevent any politicization of the functions….
“In addition, there is a provision in the bill that protects whistleblowers.” [emphasis added]
In his daily comments and tweets, the current president regularly inveighs against the news media — as he has from the day he began his campaign for office. Lately he has included in his criticism social media companies he thinks are being unfair to him. Less visible to the public and perhaps even more destructive, are his actions against federal government’s network of inspectors general. These are assaults on the most basic principle of civic life in our republic, that government is supposed to serve the interests of the citizenry, not the other way around.
Walter Schaub, former director of the federal Office of Government Ethics, recently argued that inspectors general are “the last line of defense in [Trump’s] war on ethics and law” and that with each transgression we get closer and closer to an “authoritarian coup against the rule of law” in America.
This issue, together with the names of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, will be on the ballot in November, and the verdict will be up to the American electorate.