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Trump’s ‘highly unusual’ politicization of government watchdogs

President Trump has fired three inspectors general recently, including State Department watchdog Steve Linick on Friday. Two Democratic lawmakers say Linick was investigating a Saudi arms deal the White House fast-tracked. Yamiche Alcindor talks to Joel Brenner, a former national security inspector general and director of national intelligence, about how politicizing the IG role is “all wrong.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump has fired three federal government official watchdogs in the past six weeks. These are inspector general — inspectors general. And the most recent is the inspector general of the State Department, Steve Linick, just last Friday.

    Today, the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Representative Eliot Engel, said that Linick was investigating the Trump administration fast-tracking weapons sales to Saudi Arabia last year.

    Engel and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez are reviewing Linick's firing.

    Yamiche Alcindor takes a closer look.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some see the firings as a threat to the independent government watchdogs.

    President Trump says many of the people he removed were too partisan. The most recent firing comes after President Trump removed or replaced inspectors general for the intelligence community, Defense Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Joining me to talk about the role of inspectors general is Joel Brenner. He is — he was an I.G. for the National Security Agency under president George W. Bush. And, from 2006 to 2009, he was the head of U.S. counterintelligence under the director of national intelligence. He also served under President Obama.

    Thanks so much, Joel, for being here.

    I want to first play what President Trump had to say at the White House when he was talking about the State Department I.G. and talking about the fact that, of course, he was fired after there were reports that surfaced that he was looking into an arms trading deal with Saudi Arabia, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's personal conduct.

    Here is what he said.

  • President Donald Trump:

    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 offered most of my people, almost all of them. I said, these are Obama appointees. And if you would like to let them go, I think you should let them go. But that is up to you.

    Because it is my right to do it, I said, sure, I'll do it. I — we have gotten rid of a lot of inspector generals. Every president has.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    How concerned with you, Joel, about the president firing these I.G.s? And how unusual is it for him to remove these inspectors general?

  • Joel Brenner:

    I'm very concerned.

    And it's highly unusual, Yamiche. These are people who were meant — who appointed under statute without regard to their political affiliation, solely on the basis of demonstrated ability in law or auditing or similar areas.

    And the idea that it is typical to turn — that these jobs would turn over when a new administration comes in all wrong. What we are seeing is not only an attack on particular I.G.s who are uncovering exactly what they were meant to uncover.

    We are seeing an attack on the institution of I.G.s itself. And that is — we have never seen before. The institution of I.G.s in the civilian government is 42 years old. It was a post-Watergate reform designed to uncover malfeasance in the executive branch of the government.

    The president appears to believe that the Congress has no authority to inquire or interfere with how he does business in the executive branch.

    His — I think this is the closest we have come to a Louis XIV theory of American government, which is: I am the state.

    No Supreme Court has ever agreed with that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, you are talking about the fact that these removals are unusual.

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that he has no idea what the inspector general at the State Department was looking into.

    How credible is it that a target, a potential target of an investigation, wouldn't know about that investigation?

  • Joel Brenner:

    Well, an investigation that is being — it is possible.

    But I think it's fundamentally incredible that the secretary wouldn't know this. The investigation, according to accounts in the media, have been going on for some time.

    When you do an investigation, you interview people. You find out things. You ask for documents. It is inconceivable to me that those stories would not have percolated up to the secretary's office on the top floor of the State Department, absolutely incredible.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some lawmakers are already looking at this latest removal.

    What role, if at all, should Congress play when it comes to these dismissals? And should Congress change the law, so that inspectors general are maybe more insulated from political appointees and more insulated from fired — from getting fired by presidents?

  • Joel Brenner:

    Well, they are political appointees. And they have to be.

    This is an executive branch official. The Congress has created a position, but it's a position in the executive branch. And Congress can't direct how that person is going to carry out his or her functions. That is something for the head of the agency to do.

    But what we have had is, again, an attack on a common understanding, a norm, if you will, about how the government should be conducted. That is what the president is breaking and attacking, that, if we have a president who is determined to undermine the law, and if we have a Congress that will not stand up for its own institutional prerogatives, then our republic is in trouble.

    And, right now, we have a majority in the Senate that is firmly on the rug under President Trump's couch. And unless they get out from under that couch, we have got a problem. Nothing is going to happen, in my view, until we have a change in the government.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And we only have about 30 seconds left here, but I want to ask you.

    The president says that he is defending himself, because these were Obama holdovers. What do you make of President Trump's defense?

  • Joel Brenner:

    Well, as I have suggested, that isn't a defense.

    The idea was that you would put in persons who were noted for their nonpartisan expertise. There has been a tradition that these jobs do not turn over every time there's a new administration.

    But the idea that the president is simply — ought to be changing I.G.s because he has the right to do it is exactly the opposite of what the statute intended.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you so much for joining us, Joel Brenner, a former I.G. himself.

  • Joel Brenner:

    You're welcome.

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