Fired Watchdog Was Reviewing Saudi Arms Sale, Pompeo’s Staff Use

(Bloomberg) -- The ousted State Department inspector general was examining several issues that may have drawn Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s ire in what has become the latest sign of the Trump administration’s stepped-up pressure on independent watchdogs.

President Donald Trump informed lawmakers late Friday night that he was dismissing Steve Linick, saying he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in the man charged with investigating possible corruption at the State Department. Trump tapped Ambassador Stephen Akard, a longtime ally of Vice President Mike Pence, as his replacement.

While the White House has offered no public details about what may have been behind the firing, Pompeo told the Washington Post that Linick wasn’t helping make the State Department “better.”

Fired Watchdog Was Reviewing Saudi Arms Sale, Pompeo’s Staff Use

“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,” Pompeo said in the interview.

Pompeo disputed charges that he pushed for Linick’s ouster because of an investigation, saying he was unaware of any probe into his use of staffers for personal reasons. He declined to say whether he had ever asked employees to run personal errands for him or his wife.

A top Pompeo aide, Brian Bulatao, suggested that leaks from Linick’s office were partly to blame for his dismissal, as well as the inspector general’s lack of support for a widely derided “ethos statement” the secretary introduced to the department last year.

But the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee suggested another possible motive: Linick was investigating Trump’s declaration of an emergency last year to approve the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a move Pompeo signed off on, according to Representative Eliot Engel.

The arms sale had been blocked by lawmakers from both parties over concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Engel -- who said Linick was pursuing the probe at his urging -- didn’t give more details other than saying it was “another reason” Trump may have fired the inspector general. Engel has demanded that the White House, State Department and inspector general’s office hand over documents related to the firing by May 22.

Inspectors general often pursue a range of investigations at any one time. A congressional official who asked not to be identified said Pompeo’s actions were being reviewed to determine if he improperly directed an aide to perform personal errands, including walking his dog, making restaurant reservations and handling dry cleaning.

Trump’s decision on Linick prompted some top Senate Republicans -- including Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Susan Collins of Maine, often a crucial swing vote -- to call on the White House to better explain its rationale.

Others, including Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, said they were concerned over an emerging pattern that has seen Trump remove or sideline four officials acting as inspectors general amid high-profile controversies that threaten to influence his re-election campaign.

In addition to installing Akard at the State Department, Trump has announced the nomination of seven new inspectors general across the federal government.

The totality of the moves suggest a president who, despite pledging upon entering office “drain the swamp,” has little patience for independent investigators who may unearth politically damaging material during a charged election year.

Campaign Impact

The president is acutely aware of the impact a watchdog report can have during a campaign.

Ironically, the State Department’s IG office, under Linick’s leadership, issued a report in May 2016 concluding that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton handled her email without creating “an appropriate method” for preserving records, failing to comply with department policy. The report fueled an onslaught of attacks on Clinton from Trump and his team.

Fired Watchdog Was Reviewing Saudi Arms Sale, Pompeo’s Staff Use

Linick was appointed to the State Department post in September 2013. Before that he had a similar IG role at the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Trump has made clear that he views inspectors general -- who traditionally are career civil servants who’ve served across Democratic and Republican administrations -- in the same way as political appointees, expecting that they pursue the president’s agenda.

Trump has repeatedly sidestepped questions about the dismissals by asking reporters which president appointed the individuals, suggesting that if the answer isn’t him, they’re biased. He’s said that reports of wrongdoing were intended to harm him politically.

‘Reports of Bias’

Asked after his first wave of inspector general dismissals about how Americans could have confidence that there would be proper oversight, Trump said his actions came after “reports of bias” and “different things coming in.”

“We have IGs in from the Obama era,” Trump said. “And as you know, it’s a presidential decision.”

Trump went on to defend his new nominees as “very, very highly qualified people.”

Earlier this month, Trump announced his intention to nominate a new inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services after Christi Grimm, a career official leading the office on the interim basis, released a report detailing how hospitals had been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and lacked necessary testing supplies. The report also found widespread shortages of personal protective equipment at hospitals.

“Could politics be entered into that?” the president said when asked about the findings.

A month prior, the president removed the acting Pentagon inspector general after he was selected to a board created to police the distribution of $2.2 trillion of federal stimulus passed in the coronavirus relief bill. Separately, Trump nominated a member of his White House counsel’s office who worked closely on his impeachment trial as the inspector general for a $500 billion Treasury Department coronavirus bailout fund.

Misconduct Allegation

And Trump announced in April he was removing Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community watchdog, after he disclosed to Congress the existence of a whistle-blower complaint from an intelligence community official who accused Trump of misconduct in his efforts to encourage an investigation by Ukraine’s government into former Vice President Joe Biden.

Separately, Trump fired prominent witnesses who testified at the impeachment trial that stemmed from the complaint, including Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a staffer on the National Security Council, as well as Vindman’s twin brother.

Atkinson made clear he was concerned about the chilling effects of the moves in a statement he released following his dismissal.

“I have faith that my colleagues in inspectors general offices throughout the federal government will continue to operate effective and independent whistle-blower programs, and that they will continue to do everything in their power to protect the rights of whistle-blowers,” Atkinson said. “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”

Trump has shown little patience for whistle-blowers. On Sunday, the president took aim at Rick Bright, who was removed as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority last month and subsequently filed a whistle-blower complaint.

Bright said the Trump administration ignored his warnings about hydroxychloroquine, a drug backed by the president to treat the coronavirus. The medication has since been linked to an increased death risk for certain patients and there’s been little evidence it’s effective in fighting the virus. Bright testified before the House last week and appeared on the CBS News program “60 Minutes” on Sunday.

Trump attacked the CBS report and tweeted: “This whole Whistleblower racket needs to be looked at very closely, it is causing great injustice & harm.”

Linick’s Dismissal

The specific circumstances of Linick’s dismissal seem to have generated a new wave of bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill, and may result in new investigations that inflict a political toll on the president.

A person familiar with the matter said Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had recommended that Linick be dismissed. Democrats believe the inspector general had been examining whether Pompeo and his wife broke rules by having a political appointee at the State Department perform a variety of personal tasks.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on whether Linick was investigating Pompeo.

Engel and Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Saturday they planned to open an investigation into the dismissal. In a letter to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the lawmakers asked the administration to turn over records related to open or pending State Department inspector general investigations.

“President Trump’s unprecedented removal of Inspector General Linick is only his latest sacking of an inspector general, our government’s key independent watchdogs, from a federal agency,” the pair wrote. “We unalterably oppose the politically motivated firing of inspectors general and the president’s gutting of these critical positions.”

Written Justification

Democratic efforts could receive an important boost from across the political aisle after Grassley emphasized his displeasure.

“As I’ve said before, Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG’s removal. A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress,” Grassley said in a statement on Saturday.

The Iowa lawmaker also seemed to preempt a possible justification from the White House, where some officials had criticized Linick for turning over to congressional investigators a list of contacts between Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Ukrainian officials during the impeachment proceedings.

“Although he failed to fully evaluate the State Department’s role in advancing the debunked Russian collusion investigation, those shortcomings do not waive the president’s responsibility to provide details to Congress when removing an IG,” Grassley said.

The issue also appeared destined to surface on the campaign trail, with Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, seizing on the news to criticize Trump.

“It seems the way to get fired by President Trump is not to commit wrongdoing, but to investigate it,” Biden tweeted Saturday.

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