President Donald Trump moved to fire yet another inspector general late Friday. This time, career U.S. Department of State official Steve Linick was preemptively ousted by way of a pro forma letter addressed to congressional leaders. Attorneys and critics quickly seized upon the news to argue that the 45th president was moving the nation toward some as-yet-unknown form of alleged autocracy.
National security and federal employment attorney Bradley P. Moss noted the historical nature of Trump’s long-running attacks on the various checks previously put in place to prevent against unbridled executive branch power and authority.
“Bit by bit, the president continues to dismantle the institutional and constitutional reforms we spent the last half-century implementing to reign in the imperial presidency,” he said in an email to Law&Crime. “This is not normal nor sustainable.”
“Trump is destroying our democracy,” said famed whistleblower attorney Mark Zaid via Twitter. “Intentionally. Methodically. This is nothing less than authoritarian overtures to increase his power. I can tell you of other countries who have done the same in history. It didn’t end well for them or their country. Pay attention America.”
Technically, Trump only telegraphed his plan to axe Linick by mid June. While all inspectors general serve at the pleasure of the president, even the most mercurial of office-holders at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are prohibited from immediately terminating the country’s cadre of independent watchdogs.
Under federal law, the president must notify the U.S. Congress of any plans to remove an inspector general and give at least 30 days formal written notice of such a personnel change.
“It is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of Federal programs and activities,” Trump wrote in the letter, which was addressed to House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and dated May 15. “The Inspectors General have a critical role in the achievement of these goals. As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as President, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”
Members of the Democratic Party immediately called foul on the promised downsizing at the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) noted that Linick had recently begun investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo–a longtime Trump loyalist and former member of Congress from Kansas with a far-right voting record.
“I have learned that the Office of the Inspector General had opened an investigation into Secretary Pompeo. Mr. Linick’s firing amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation.”
Engel also promised an investigation into the matter, though such promises are frequently made by the president’s opponents in the lower chamber and have rarely resulted in any sort of formal investigatory proceedings. Late afternoon Saturday, Engel and his upper chamber counterpart, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called for the preservation of all documents related to the Linick firing.
According to an anonymous source cited by National Public Radio, Linick was looking into allegations that Pompeo was corruptly using the State Department to further his own material interests.
“[T]he OIG was looking into the secretary’s misuse of a political appointee at the Department [of State] to perform personal tasks for himself and Mrs. Pompeo,” that source claimed.
“If Inspector General Linick was fired because he was conducting an investigation of conduct by Secretary Pompeo, the Senate cannot let this stand,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee must get to bottom of what happened here.”
Regardless of the genesis for Linick’s soon-to-be let-go status, critics of the White House saw the career official’s departure as more of the same sort of bad news from an administration increasingly emboldened and determined to squelch dissent among its ranks.
Jeff Hauser, an attorney who founded and serves as the executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research tweeted out an almost blase bit of disgust at the news of the inspector general’s imminent departure.
“I had missed the latest Banana Republic Friday Night Massacre,” he said. “I have so little patience for unfreaked [sic] out people.”
“Nothing to see here—just another late-Friday-night firing of an Inspector General by the Trump administration,” mused University of Texas Law Professor and occasional national security expert Steve Vladeck via Twitter. “Inspectors General are tasked with investigating fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, [and] illegality. Small wonder that Trump’s allergic to them.”
“The problem here isn’t that Trump fires anyone who dares to conduct oversight he doesn’t like; it’s that no one within his party is objecting,” Vladeck added in a later tweet.
[image via MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images]
Editor’s note: this article has been amended post-publication to account for recent developments viz. a forthcoming congressional investigation into the inspector general’s firing.
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