Friday, March 17, 2017

The sneaky way the Trump administration is chilling government oversight

Laurel Raymond
General Reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact me:

The inspectors general aren’t often in the news, but they’re a critical part of government oversight.

With one party in control of both Congress and the White House, independent government oversight offices are more important now than ever?—?especially as President Donald Trump’s network of business entanglements pushes the American presidency deep into unprecedented ethical territory.
Trump, however, has shown little regard to the advice of independent offices, outright ignoring the advice of the Office of Government Ethics that he divest from his businesses. And, lost amidst the hubbub over his controversial policy initiatives, alleged ties to Russia, and ethical questions, the Trump administration’s policies and actions could have a crippling effect on the power of another critical watchdog group?—?the inspectors general.

Republicans are threatening the head of the Office of Government Ethics for criticizing Trump

There are 73 inspectors general spread across government agencies, where they are charged with serving as independent and objective watchdogs to root out waste, fraud, and abuse. By keeping watch over politically appointed agency heads and keeping Congress informed of any issues with government programs, they can also serve as a check on the White House.

According to other, nongovernmental watchdog groups, inspectors general themselves, and congressional Democrats, however, Trump’s policies and administrations have already had a chilling effect on the offices’ ability to fulfill their duty.

“Nearly two months into your Administration, I am already troubled by several actions that could hamper inspectors’ general ability to hold your Administration accountable,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) wrote in a letter Trump on Wednesday, which ThinkProgress obtained.

In his letter, Casey outlines three actions Trump has taken that impede the inspectors general.
In January, Trump transition team told inspectors general they would be out of a job soon.
The first, and perhaps most immediately shocking, is a story stemming back to January 13th, when multiple inspectors general received calls from Trump transition officials warning them that they should start looking for other jobs.

While some inspectors general are appointed by their agencies, a little under half are political appointees that must be confirmed by Congress. Unlike many other politically appointed positions, however, they serve open-ended terms. Their position is nonpartisan by definition and they aren’t supposed to have any loyalty to their nominating president.

As a result, it’s extremely unusual for them to be asked to leave their jobs by a new administration. In fact, that hasn’t happened since 1980, when Ronald Reagan dismissed all political appointees?—?including the inspectors general?—?in one fell swoop. As the position was created in 1978, Reagan was the first president to deal with a transition after the position was created. There was a massive outcry, and several of the dismissed inspectors general were reinstated.

None have been asked to resign during a presidential transition since?—?which is why many were shocked to be receiving calls from the President’s transition team telling them their position was only extended temporarily.

“There would undoubtedly be a chilling effect on their ability to perform their important work.”
“The not-too-subtle undertone was, ‘We can get rid of you if we want, so you should play ball,’” a Labor Department official told the Washington Post.

Or as Casey wrote in his Wednesday letter, “if Inspectors General felt threatened they could face retribution or be removed from their positions if they uncovered issues that might be unfavorable or embarrassing to the Administration, there would undoubtedly be a chilling effect on their ability to perform their important work.”

In response to the initial outcry, the Trump team insisted that the call was made in error by a junior employee.

A week later, however, Congressional Democrats and the Washington Post obtained an email from the Trump transition team instructing employees to make the calls?—?suggesting higher level involvement, and showing that the calls were intended to affect inspectors general across the government.

“There should be written assurances from the highest level possible in the White House that they are expected to stay on permanently.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, called the phone calls, even if the request was retracted, “part of a troubling pattern of misguided and politically-motivated attacks on government watchdogs, ethics experts, law enforcement officials, and career government employees.”

And since those calls, the White House has been relatively silent on the inspectors general.

“While it may have been a mistake for the Trump team to tell them that they should consider their positions temporary,” Nick Pacifico of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight told ThinkProgress, “there should be written assurances from the highest level possible in the White House that they are expected to stay on permanently.”

No such reassurance has appeared?—?meaning that any chilling message the inspectors general received could still be in effect.

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