Evan Vucci / AP

Does President Trump Understand the Role of Inspectors General?

Dismissive presidential tweet on the watchdogs will make their jobs harder, observers say.

In the latest sign of tension between the White House and the attorney general, President Trump on Wednesday took his appointee Jeff Sessions to task for requesting an inspector general review of possible abuses of the intelligence court by the Obama administration.

During a Monday news conference on opioids, Attorney General Jeff Sessions added to the ongoing drama about investigations of 2016 election-year surveillance—from which he has been largely recused—with a pointed announcement. Asked whether he will take up suggestions from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that Justice expand its current investigations to include the previous administration’s possible politicization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts, the attorney general said, "The inspector general will take that as one of the matters he'll deal with." Sessions continued: "We believe the Department of Justice must adhere to the highest standards in the FISA court, and yes, it will be investigated, and I think that's just the appropriate thing.”

Wednesday morning at 6:34 a.m., Trump expressed displeasure. “Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse,” he tweeted. “Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is already well into a probe into the FBI’s handling of investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email practices and its possible impact on the last  presidential campaign. Horowitz is also chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. His office declined comment on Sessions’ request.

But observers of the inspector general community expressed skepticism that the president is demonstrating a full understanding of the role of the watchdogs.

The notion that Horowitz is “an Obama guy” belies his resume and the wording of the 1978 Inspector General Act. President George W. Bush named him to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2003, years before Obama tapped him as an IG in July 2011. The 1978 law that created the 73 governmentwide positions specifies that they shall be appointed “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration or investigations.”

Trump’s accusation that the IG’s office is “late” with its investigation of such issues as fired FBI Director James Comey’s handling of election-year probes might seem off given the assurance that Horowitz gave Congress in testimony last November that he would deliver findings by March or April.

As “dual-hats,” the IGs were designed to report both to Congress and to their own agency, and are not required to accept assignments from their agency’s head without rendering their own judgments on use of resources and the task’s relative importance. “IGs must make decisions independently from agency leadership,” wrote acting Defense Department IG Glenn Fine (who previously held Horowitz’s job at Justice), in a recent essay on the mission of inspectors general. “But we also should communicate regularly with agency leaders and should not surprise them with our work. We need to listen and consider their perspectives.”

Past presidents from Reagan to Clinton have heaped scorn on inspectors general, noted Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has written widely on IGs. “They are not a popular group, and if they’re doing their job, it’s even worse,” he told Government Executive. “It’s no surprise that a president says, ‘Who the hell are these people?’ given their dual role of being viewed as agents of Congress while the agency people don’t necessarily like them.”

They are usually the last to get appointed in a new presidency, Light said, the selections coming late either because “presidents don’t understand them, or understand them enough to not appoint them.”

Though a few IGs have succumbed to politicization or coziness with their agency, Light added, “for the most part, they’ve been pretty good” at focusing impartially on uncovering waste, fraud and abuse. With his tweet, “Trump is the first president to go public with this shop-worn attack,” Light said. “He won’t win it, and should back off.”

list of ongoing IG vacancies is maintained by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. “It is more than unfortunate that the president decided to throw partisan barbs at the inspector general, who is needed as an independent, objective referee for exactly this kind of question,” Peter Tyler, a POGO senior policy analyst, said in an email to Government Executive. “This type of investigation fits squarely into the traditional role of the inspector general …and will likely prove to be a major effort, with many deep dives into technical questions. This is another example showing that our inspectors general need real support from the administration, not dismissive rhetoric.”