Coons on MSNBC: 'Not business as usual'

Delaware News Desk
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Sen. Chris Coons joined MSNBC’s Meet The Press Daily to condemn the Trump Administration’s recent firings of four inspectors general tasked with oversight of the executive branch.

“The whole point of having independent inspectors general is to provide transparency and oversight for every federal agency. I don’t think there’s ever been a string of firings this significant and this close together where one could argue that there was some mixture of either retribution for their role in the impeachment trial of President Trump or an effort to prevent transparency and oversight of ongoing federal government activity,” Sen. Coons said.

“The fact that President Trump is being allowed to wipe away this long-standing and critical protection should be gravely concerning to your viewers and to my colleagues here in the Senate,” Sen. Coons said.

“Majority Leader McConnell has shown over and over that he thinks his key role is not protecting the independence of the Senate and the separation of powers but advancing the goals of the Trump Administration. So I’m skeptical that we’ll be able to get a hearing let alone move this legislation but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” Sen. Coons said. 

Q: Steve Linick is the fourth inspector general to be removed from his position or her position since April. Joining me now is the Democratic Senator from Delaware, Senator Chris Coons. He is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee that will investigate Steve Linick’s firing. Welcome to Meet the Press Daily Senator Coons. So the president just said it’s his absolute authority, what say you? 

Coons: Well Katy as you pointed out, this is the latest in a troubling series of firings of inspectors general. Inspector General Atkinson from the Intelligence Committee, Grimm and Fine, who were supposed to be overseeing HHS and Department of Defense and now Linick from the State Department. Let me remind our viewers the whole point of having independent inspectors general is to provide transparency and oversight for every federal agency. I don’t think there’s ever been a string of firings this significant and this close together where one could argue that there was some mixture of either retribution for their role in the impeachment trial of President Trump or an effort to prevent transparency and oversight of ongoing federal government activity. In either case, this is not business as usual, and this is something that both Republicans and Democrats are going to have to stand up to. I was encouraged to see that Senator Menendez, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Chairman Engel from the House, are working closely together to demand answers but also that Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has sent a letter to the president demanding more answers. But it’s frankly going to take more than that if we’re going to protect inspectors general as a key institution that keeps the federal government, its executive branch in particular, accountable to the people. 

Q: Let me read you what Secretary Pompeo told The Washington Post. He said, ’I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department, very consistent with what the statute says he’s supposed to be doing,’ he said. ’The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.’ The paper says Secretary Pompeo didn’t go into any detail about what any of that meant. What is your reaction? 

Coons: Well, my concern is that every department has some tension with their inspector general. That often is the mark of a good inspector general. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, when we do our annual oversight hearings for different agencies, we often invite the inspector general to come and give us input on how they think programs are being managed, where they think money is being spent wisely or unwisely, and that often causes bristling on the part of the administration leader who is responsible for the department. This is true with both Republican and Democratic administrations and the fact that President Trump is being allowed to wipe away this long-standing and critical protection should be gravely concerning to your viewers and to my colleagues here in the Senate. 

Q: Can we dig in a little bit on the Saudi Arabia aspect of this? According to NBC News reporting, Linick was looking into Pompeo green lighting the arms sale to Saudi Arabia over the will of Congress. What exactly was Congress worried about? 

Coons: As you know, there was a great degree of concern here in Congress, in particular in the Senate, over the murder, the dismembering of a U.S. Resident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in a Turkish consulate and the direct role that senior leaders within the Saudi Kingdom were reported at the time to have had in ordering that execution, that assassination of a journalist. There were other very difficult developments in the war in Yemen and the role that the Saudis played that in combination led to bipartisan opposition to another round of arms sales by the Trump Administration to the Saudi Kingdom without more transparency and without engagement and support from the Senate. This is a key part of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s role, is to be engaged in and providing either approval or disapproval for critical arms sales and the fact that an arms sale went around that approval would be a completely appropriate thing for the inspector general at the State Department to be looking into and reviewing. 

Q: So the legislation that Senator Menendez is putting forward to give Congress a chance to stop the firing of IGs I know some Republicans have expressed shock over this firing. I know Senator Grassley wants more information on it. This sort of legislation that gives Congress an emergency break for this sort of thing, does it have any chance of even being brought up by the Senate Majority Leader? And if so, could it pass? 

Coons: Well, Katy, that’s going to be a test of the will of Senator Grassley and a few others who have expressed grave concern. We’re going to need more than handwringing and expressions of concern from our Republican partners here if this legislation is going to move anywhere. To your point, Majority Leader McConnell has shown over and over that he thinks his key role is not protecting the independence of the Senate and the separation of powers but advancing the goals of the Trump Administration. So I’m skeptical that we’ll be able to get a hearing let alone move this legislation but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. 

Q: Do you believe that this is sending a message to other inspector generals in other agencies, this now being the fourth inspector general to be ousted by this president? 

Coons: It does. And frankly, the president’s comment that when I was told he was hired by Obama, that was enough we should just get rid of him, I’m paraphrasing obviously, is meant to send a signal that President Trump continues to indulge himself in this theory that there is some deep state loyalty to his predecessor that has caused some of the challenges he and his administration have had. Instead, he should embrace this as part of the long-standing structure of how accountability and transparency has long been a part of the executive branch. I’ll remind you that the two justices nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump are justices whose theory of executive power, their view of the president’s ability to fire at will anyone in the executive branch, regardless of the long-standing traditions or requirements of their being independent, whether in the FBI, the Department of Justice or inspectors general, makes me gravely concerned that the Trump Administration and its advocates both in the administration and on the Supreme Court may be steadily moving in the direction of concentrating more and more power in the hands of the president.