GOP's Ron Johnson offers unfortunate defense of Trump's IG firing

According to the powerful Republican committee chair, inspectors general are independent watchdogs, but they shouldn't expect to be independent of Trump.
Image: Senate Homeland Security Committee Holds Hearing On Government's Interagency Response To Coronavirus
Chairman Ron Johnson, R-W.I., speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government's response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Washington on March 5, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

In early April, after Donald Trump fired the inspector general of the intelligence community for no reason, a bipartisan group of senators pushed back against the decision. Soon after, some Senate Republicans, each of whom are generally allied with the White House, wrote to the president, urging him "to work with IGs, not against them."

Two weeks later, Politico reported that GOP lawmakers were determined to "convince the president that inspectors general aren't his enemies."

The appeals clearly failed, as Trump blew off the concerns from within his own party, firing his fourth IG in six weeks late Friday night. The fact that the decision to oust the State Department's inspector general was held for a Friday night news dump suggests the president and his team know moves like these are wrong, but they keep taking the steps anyway, confident Trump and his aides can get away with it.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sat down with CNN's Jake Tapper yesterday and made clear that the president's assumptions about firing independent watchdogs with impunity are almost certainly correct.

"I take a slightly different view in terms of what [inspectors general] should be independent from. They need to retain their independence within the agencies, so they can do inspections and investigations and provide that to their leadership, but primarily to the president. And so they serve at the president's will."

In other words, according to the powerful Republican committee chair, inspectors general are independent watchdogs, but they aren't, and shouldn't expect to be, independent of Trump. [Update: It appears the Wisconsinite used to have a different posture before the Trump era.]

As part of the same interview, Johnson said he knew why the president fired the State Department IG, but he wouldn't share the reason. The senator added, "I'm not crying big crocodile tears over this termination."

It's worth noting for context that there was quite a bit of reporting over the weekend suggesting that State Department Inspector General Steve Linick had opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The cabinet secretary then told Trump to fire the IG, and the president obliged.

Ron Johnson left little doubt yesterday that he doesn't much care -- despite the fact that the committee he leads has direct oversight responsibilities over alleged corruption like this.

In fairness, some Senate Republicans have adopted a more sensible posture. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), in particular, issued a statement that read, "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."

The problem, of course, is that Romney's position does not appear to represent the prevailing judgment of his party. Trump knows that, which is why he abuses his powers frequently and without regard for consequences.

Postscript: It seems like ancient history, but in 2009, then-President Barack Obama ousted Gerald Walpin, who'd served as the IG for the AmeriCorps program. At the time, many far-right Republicans -- including, incidentally, North Carolina's Mark Meadows, the current White House chief of staff -- insisted the decision was part of a partisan political scheme.

The evidence proved otherwise, but the incident serves as a reminder of how too many GOP officials appear to apply their principles in highly selective ways.