President Donald Trump’s recent removal of several inspectors general has the left up in arms, making various statements with the usual buzz phrases about “oversight” and “independent” public servants and “rule of law” and calls for investigations. While it’s true that we should make sure these IGs were removed for legitimate reasons, I am perplexed as to why Democrats failed to take issue when Barack Obama went on a firing spree against inspectors general early in his first term, a clear sign he sought to avoid accountability from independent watchdogs that weren’t in his pocket.
I’ve recently covered the controversial firing of Gerald Walpin, inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), who was illegally fired by Barack Obama for investigating Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, an Obama ally who covered up sex abuse allegations made against him and attempted to pay his victims hush money with taxpayer dollars. But Walpin was only one of three inspectors general who were forced out of their positions in the first six months of the Obama administration, all within a few weeks of each other.
In the wake of Walpin’s illegal firing, Fred Weiderhold Jr., the inspector general of Amtrak, was forcibly retired, and Judith Gwynne, the acting IG of the International Trade Commission, was fired soon after. The quick succession of these firings raised questions about the Obama administrations’ political interference regarding IGs—at least from Republicans. “When inspectors general across the administration have roadblocks placed in their way, American taxpayers should worry. A threat to one’s independence is a threat to them all,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).
“The mounting evidence that there might be political interference with the IGs is disturbing,” Pete Sepp, the vice president for policy and communications at the National Taxpayers Union, said at the time. “The IGs are being emasculated.”
Another inspector general, Neil M. Barofsky, the IG of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), was reportedly being strongarmed by Obama’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at the time. Barofsky had just opened an investigation “into the Treasury’s decision to approve bonuses for executives at the insurance giant AIG, which received billions in bailout money from the TARP fund” when he started getting pushback from the Treasury Department.
The firings of Walpin, Weiderhold, and Gwynne resulted in congressional inquiries, but not headlines. Even though they, as Robert Stacy McCain put it, exposed “what appears to be a pattern of pressure from the Obama administration.” Where was the outrage back then? I’ll save you time and effort by telling you there really wasn’t any outside of the Republican Party. Yet today, Democrats, pretending to have some moral high ground, are all calling for all sorts of investigations into Trump’s firing of inspectors general. But whatever has happened under Trump, it pales in comparison to the outright war Obama waged on independent oversight of his administration.
In August 2014, 47 of 73 inspectors general wrote an open letter to Congress informing them that the Obama administration was obstructing investigations by not giving them full access to the information they need to investigate properly. Such a letter was unprecedented, and this systemic corruption and obstruction of inspectors general would have been considered an impeachable defense for almost any other president. The lack of outrage (thanks to lack of media attention to the scandal) emboldened the Obama administration to impose new restrictions on the investigative powers of inspectors general in 2015. Imagine President Trump trying to get away with that today!
Despite his efforts to undermine inspectors general, major abuses were discovered, as Victor Davis Hanson noted:
In 2012, Horowitz recommended that 14 Justice Department and ATF officials be disciplined for their conduct in the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking scandal.
A 2013 IG audit found that the IRS had targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny prior to the 2012 Obama reelection effort.
In 2014, an internal audit revealed that CIA officials had hacked the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers while compiling a report on enhanced interrogation techniques. CIA director John Brennan had claimed that his agents were not improperly monitoring Senate staff computer files. He was forced to retract his denials and apologize for his prevarication.
In 2016, the State Department’s inspector general found that Hillary Clinton had never sought approval for her reckless and illegal use of an unsecured private email server. The IG also found that other Clinton aides silenced staffers who were worried about national security being compromised by the unsecured server.
But even in those cases where these watchdogs uncovered corruption, Obama did nothing about it. “Under former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the findings of dozens of IGs were snubbed,” explained Hanson. “That raises the question: What good are inspectors general if a president ignores any illegality and impropriety that they have uncovered?”
Obstruction of justice was integral to the entire operation of the Obama administration. The Trump administration, by comparison, has barely been given room to breathe because it’s been constantly under the microscope of a special counsel investigation, an impeachment inquiry, and a media that spent eight years ignoring endless scandals under Barack Obama.
Matt Margolis is the author of Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama’s Legacy and the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis