Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, steps into an elevator as he leaves a secure area in the Capitol after a day of questions about the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment hearings.

Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, steps into an elevator as he leaves a secure area in the Capitol after a day of questions about the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment hearings. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

Trump’s Anger With IG Over Impeachment Role Highlights High Watchdog Vacancy Rate

There is “a long history of resistance” to inspectors general from the administrations in which they serve, says Paul Light.

President Trump reportedly has considered firing Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson for Atkinson’s role in sharing the whistleblower complaint with lawmakers, an act that ultimately sparked the impeachment hearings. “He has said he believes Mr. Atkinson, whom he appointed in 2017, has been disloyal,” the New York Times reported earlier this week. Such a move would be highly controversial and it would add yet another vacancy to a long list of unfilled IG positions across government.  

Out of the 74 offices required by law to have inspectors general, 11 currently lack permanent watchdogs, according to the Project on Government Oversight’s IG vacancy tracker. The IGs play critical roles in identifying wasteful practices, fraud, and other government misconduct, and Congress and the public rely on their reports to hold agencies and individuals accountable for wrongdoing. Nick Pacifico, POGO associate general counsel who manages the tracker, said the high IG vacancy rate is not unique to the Trump administration. “Obama had similar IG vacancy levels at points in his administration,” Pacifico said.

But the prospect of Trump firing Atkinson is worrisome beyond the fact that it would create another critical vacancy, critics say. “We should be used to the president going after investigators and prosecutors for doing their job when their job involves exposing his misconduct,” tweeted Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But him considering firing the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community for ‘disloyalty’ is shocking.” 

“Inspectors general are critical bulwarks against corruption and mismanagement within the government,” said Austin Evers, executive director at the nonprofit American Oversight, an ethics watchdog. “Whether out of a desire to avoid scrutiny or simply because they do not value the work inspectors general provide, this administration has left far too many of these positions vacant. The fallout is almost certainly wasted taxpayer dollars, under enforced ethics rules, and ultimately a loss of trust that the government can police itself.”

Even though this situation was “particularly partisan” since it involved the president’s behavior, it is “not unprecedented,” said Paul Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University who has written widely on inspectors general.“The [inspector general] concept has had a long history of resistance from the administrations they serve,” dating back to the Reagan and Carter administrations, he said. Several of the current vacancies date back to the Obama administration.  

Light attributed the high number of inspectors general vacancies in the Trump administration to “the same appointments process illness that’s affecting all departments.” Some of the vacancies may be deliberate, but, overall, “the president just doesn’t care,” said Light. “He’s got a White House Office of Presidential Appointments that is poorly staffed, poorly led and downright incompetent.” 

At a House subcommittee hearing in September, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz spoke about the vacancy issue. “Prolonged vacancies within [inspectors general offices] undermine the critical oversight work being done within that office,” he said. “Even though acting inspectors general have done a great job, they “don’t have the ability to push back when that independence issue comes up in quite the same way” when dealing with Congress or their agency’s leadership. Horowitz announced in June the council, which he chairs, will begin tracking vacant positions on Oversight.gov. The council and Justice Department didn’t respond to calls for comment on the status.

Additionally, the Senate has yet to vote on the Inspector General Protection Act (HR. 1847) that the House passed in June. This would require the president to submit a report on vacancies that last longer than 210 days and mandate notification to Congress within 30 days if there is a change in status for an inspector general, such as being put on leave.