Watchdogs Appointed by Trump Pose Dilemma for Biden

Watchdogs Appointed by Trump Pose Dilemma for Biden

Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Soskin in May, around the time he was moving against numerous independent inspectors general. The purge included firing some Senate-confirmed officials on the vague basis that he purportedly lacked confidence in them. He also appointed outsiders to serve as new acting heads of offices whose top positions were vacant — layering over the career deputy inspectors general who had been temporarily in control.

Mr. Biden sharply criticized the purge at the time during a Yahoo News town hall and pledged to act differently.

Some of the targeted officials had attracted Mr. Trump’s personal ire, such as Mr. Atkinson. Others were leading investigations that threatened Trump allies and other Republicans; he removed Steve A. Linick as the State Department’s watchdog, for example, at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was facing several potentially damaging investigations. (A subordinate to Mr. Pompeo later did accuse Mr. Linick of specific misconduct, but an inspector general council investigated and found that the evidence refuted his accusations.)

Filling the Transportation Department inspector general post last year had political sensitivities for both Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell, then the two most powerful Republicans in Washington. In 2019, Politico reported that the department’s longtime inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, was overseeing an investigation into whether the department under Ms. Chao was improperly favoring grants to Kentucky as her husband sought re-election there.

In January 2020, Mr. Scovel retired for health reasons, and his deputy, Mitch Behm, took over as acting head. But in May, Mr. Trump installed a different acting head: Howard Elliott, a political appointee known as Skip who, in an unorthodox arrangement, remained subordinate to Ms. Chao. Mr. Trump also nominated Mr. Soskin, then a Justice Department lawyer, for the role.

Under Mr. Elliott’s tenure, the election came and went, and the office issued no report about grants to Kentucky. Mr. McConnell won re-election, but Mr. Trump lost, meaning political appointees like Mr. Elliott were set to leave by the inauguration. Had Mr. McConnell not pushed Mr. Soskin through, the office would have reverted to Mr. Behm’s control until Mr. Biden nominated and the Senate confirmed a new inspector general.

Still, Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor who co-wrote a book proposing post-Trump reforms to government, said that no matter how well Mr. Biden might couch a justification to remove such an inspector general, it would further damage the notion that presidents ought not remove them without cause.

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