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Eric Litke
By Eric Litke May 29, 2020

Ron Johnson changes tune on watchdog independence under Trump

When President Barack Obama was in office, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was a fierce advocate for the independence of inspectors general, a group that serves as the internal watchdogs for the federal government.

In comments before Congress, through reports of his committee and in news releases, he  championed the need for oversight through these offices.

But some prominent voices have noted a shift from the Wisconsin Republican under President Donald Trump — particularly as Trump has removed five inspectors general in a series of moves many have labeled political retaliation.

"The man who was so worried about politicization of the IGs under Obama has not even offered pro-forma objections to the defenestration of the watchdogs that he used to champion," the longtime Wisconsin radio voice Charlie Sykes, a conservative, wrote May 20, 2020, for The Bulwark. "Even as Trump makes a joke of the independence of the inspectors general, Johnson remains one of Trump’s most eager lieutenants."

A May 18, 2020, Washington Post analysis headlined in part as "Hypocrisy watch" noted how Johnson had "downplayed" the removals in a recent CNN appearance.

That makes this a good time to break out our Flip-O-Meter.

Our requisite reminder: We are not measuring whether any change in position is good policy or good politics. We’re just examining whether a public official has been consistent in his or her stated views.

Has Johnson changed his stance on the independence of inspectors general, particularly related to the president?

Let’s check the archives.

Trump’s actions

Inspectors general provide oversight and accountability throughout the federal government. The position was created in 1978 after the Watergate scandal.

The 74 inspectors and their staff — a total of some 13,000 people across all departments — perform audits, investigations and inspections. They are tasked with finding and deterring waste, fraud and abuse, and reporting their findings to both the agency head and Congress.

Inspectors general are appointed by the president for all cabinet-level departments, but are considered non-political positions. Their independence from political officials and the agencies they work in has been fiercely protected over the years — including by Johnson.

Since March 2020, Trump has fired or replaced five inspectors general, three of whom the Washington Post described as being removed in apparent retaliation. The May 18, 2020 story laid out the background this way:

Acting Health and Human Services Department inspector general Christi Grimm had issued a report on "severe shortages" of hospital equipment during the coronavirus outbreak — a report that Trump derided.

(State Department inspector general Steve) Linick had issued a report critical of State Department officials and called an "urgent" briefing on Ukraine disinformation during Trump’s impeachment, in addition to reportedly investigating (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo for potentially using official staff for personal errands.

The now-ousted intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, had forwarded the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Trump was asked about firing Atkinson, and he cited the complaint. "I thought he did a terrible job," Trump said. "Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report … and he brought it to Congress with an emergency."

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Trump has also removed acting Transportation Department inspector general Mitch Behm, and acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine. Both were part of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, monitoring the Trump Administration’s dispersal of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. Fine was chairman.

An array of Democrats have blasted Trump’s actions. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, joined the chorus, posting May 16, 2020 on Twitter: "The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power."

Johnson’s position in 2015

Johnson took a prominent role defending inspectors general in 2015, when many Republicans in Congress were criticizing Obama for delays making permanent appointments.

"It’s just incredibly important to have permanent inspectors general that are completely independent that will provide Congress and the American public transparency and that watchdog assignment — that responsibility for departments and agencies — so that we have awareness of what’s happening," Johnson said at a hearing on inspectors general that he chaired. "It’s the only way we’re going to be able to improve the efficiency, the effectiveness, the accountability of government is to have that type of transparency."

At that hearing, Johnson also criticized the act of "retaliating against people that were issuing reports" that their superiors didn’t like, the Washington Post reported.

In a June 2015 statement before a Congressional committee hearing, Johnson said permanent inspectors general are needed because they are more secure in their position and less at risk of "compromising their work to appease the agency or the president."

And a May 2015 report spoke even more directly to the present situation. The report, issued by the Homeland Security Committee, which Johnson chairs, said this in support of the proposed Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015:

"The power of the President … to remove an IG threatens the IG's independence at a very basic level. The IG Act attempted to temper this power by adding procedural safeguards meant to protect IGs from being removed for political or other nefarious reasons."

Johnson’s position today

On a May 17, 2020, appearance on Jake Tapper’s "State of the Union’ show on CNN, Johnson addressed inspectors general for several minutes.

He first described independence, with a key qualifier about the presidential role.

"I think their independence needs to remain within their agencies," Johnson said. "I’m very mindful of the fact that inspectors general don’t work for Congress. They actually work for the administration. They are part of the executive branch. … They work and serve the president of the United States. … They serve at the president’s will."

As a quick aside, we’ll note it’s a significant stretch to say the inspectors general don’t work for Congress. The act creating the position expressly said one of their purposes is "to provide a means for keeping the head of the (agency) and the Congress fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies."

During the CNN appearance, Tapper told Johnson he finds it hard to believe the senator would "have the same attitude you have now" if Obama had removed multiple inspectors general in a short time. Johnson, addressing Linick specifically, downplayed the firing, after noting he had issues with Linick responding to one prior oversight request.

"I spoke with senior officials both with the White House and the State Department, I understand their reasoning," Johnson said. "I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination: Let’s put it that way."

Our ruling

When inspectors general were up for debate in 2015, Johnson spoke out strongly and repeatedly about the need for independence, saying they shouldn’t compromise their work "to appease the agency or the president." He specifically condemned the idea of retaliating against inspectors general for reports superiors didn’t like.

A report from his committee even said the president’s ability to remove an inspector general "threatens the IG’s independence at a very basic level."

Of course, that was under a Democratic president.

With a Republican now in the Oval Office and removing several inspectors general for reasons many view as political, Johnson is singing a different tune. He talks about inspectors general serving "at the president’s will," and how they "work and serve the president of the United States."

That’s a complete change in position, or as we call it, a Full Flop.

Our Sources

CNN, ‘State of the Union’ with Jake Tapper, May 17, 2020

The Washington Post, Hypocrisy watch: Republicans who championed inspectors general under Obama stand by as Trump purges them, May 2020

The Bulwark, The Strange Case of Ron Johnson, May 20, 2020

Ron Johnson, Opening statement: "Watchdogs Needed Top Government Investigator Positions Left Unfilled for Years," June 3, 2015  

Government Executive, Senators to Obama: Fill the Inspector General Vacancies, June 3, 2015

Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Report on Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015, May 5, 2015

The Washington Post, Trump ramps up retaliatory purge with firing of State Department inspector general, May 16, 2020

CBS, The internal watchdogs Trump has fired or replaced, May 19, 2020

Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, Inspector General Act of 1978, enacted July 7, 2014

Congressional Research Service, Removal of Inspectors General: Rules, Practice, and Considerations for Congress, May 26, 2020

Federal News Network, Who do inspectors general work for?, April 16, 2020

National Security Agency Office of the Inspector General, Nine OIG Employees Recognized at the 2019 CIGIE Award Ceremony, Dec. 3, 2019

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Ron Johnson changes tune on watchdog independence under Trump

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