Pompeo Faces Scrutiny as House Chair Reveals Ousted Watchdog Probed Arms Sales

May 19, 2020by Michael Wilner and Bryan Lowry, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participates in a news briefing with members of the Coronavirus Task Force at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 8, 2020. (Chris Kleponis/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel on Monday raised the possibility that the State Department’s inspector general was fired because he was investigating President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration last year that expedited an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

The dismissal of Steve Linick, the department’s inspector, was recommended by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to congressional Democrats.

Linick’s investigation was nearly complete before his ouster last week, a Democratic congressional aide confirmed to McClatchy, raising suspicions that Linick’s firing was intended to snuff out his report.

The State Department did not immediately comment on whether Linick’s termination was related to Saudi arms sales.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is looking into the matter, Engel, a New York Democrat, said in a statement. “We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.”

Linick’s firing on Friday night raised alarm bells among Democratic lawmakers, including Engel, who had learned that the inspector general was investigating a host of activities related to the secretary of state, including whether he had directed State Department personnel to conduct personal business on his behalf.

Pompeo confirmed to The Washington Post Monday that he recommended Linick’s firing, but he denied that he was aware beforehand that the inspector general was investigating whether he had an aide run personal errands.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat who served with Pompeo during his six years in the U.S. House, voiced support for the House investigation.

“The President’s persistent purge of public servants whose main focus is to provide oversight and accountability isn’t just deeply disturbing, it’s potentially unlawful,” Cleaver said in a statement.

Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., also raised concerns about Linick’s removal.

“The firing of the State Department inspector general — whose job it is to make sure government is actually working for the people — is yet another example of the Trump Administration attempting to get rid of oversight at every turn,” Davids said in a statement.

However, Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kansas, who succeeded Pompeo in the U.S. House, argued that the push to investigate Linick’s firing is politically motivated. “We’ve repeatedly seen Washington elites baselessly attack the president and his administration in the last four years,” Estes said in a statement.

“Oversight is important, but political gamesmanship and partisan distractions are not helpful for the American people. Kansans know and trust Secretary Pompeo and his dedication to this country,” added Estes, who represents the Wichita area.

Rep. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican running for U.S. Senate, said in a statement that inspectors general “serve at the pleasure of the President and if the President no longer has confidence in their ability to serve his administration over their own agenda, he can fire them.”

Marshall added Pompeo “has done a great job, and he continues to have my support.”

Trump asserted his right to fire Linick when talking to reporters Monday, but he also hung the decision completely on Pompeo’s advice.

“I don’t know him at all. I never even heard of him, but I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike,” Trump said.

“I have the absolute right as president to terminate. I said, who appointed him? They said, ‘President Obama.’ I said, ‘I’ll terminate him.’”

American Oversight, an independent watchdog group that used public records laws to compel the release of State Department documents throughout Pompeo’s tenure, filed a request with the State Department Monday for an expedited release of records related to Linick’s dismissal.

“Given reports that the president is planning to remove the State Inspector General for investigating Secretary Pompeo’s conduct, the public urgently needs additional information about complaints submitted to the Office of the Inspector General that concern the secretary’s conduct,” the group said in a letter addressed to the State Department and the Justice Department.

The group filed a lawsuit in February “for any records of complaints filed by employees concerning the conduct of Mike Pompeo during his tenure as secretary of state or CIA director.”

Pompeo’s political allies in Kansas said the controversy surrounding Linick’s firing won’t have a long-term impact on the Wichita Republican’s standing within the state or nationally. After passing up the Senate race, Pompeo is widely seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2024.

“It’s not going to be remembered in two weeks,” said Kelly Arnold, the former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “This story’s going to blow over. I think Democrats are just trying to target President Trump.”

Arnold referenced reports that Pompeo may have had a State Department staffer walk his dog and handle other personal tasks. “Those are nothing compared to other things that have happened to this administration,” he said.

The increased scrutiny of Pompeo comes as the June 1 filing deadline to run for office in Kansas approaches.

Pompeo rebuffed a prolonged recruitment effort by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to draw him into the race to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, but his multiple trips to Kansas last year had fueled speculation that he was contemplating a run.

McClatchy filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2019 for receipts documenting the costs of Pompeo’s four trips to Kansas. An official with the FOIA office at the State Department said that the request would not be fulfilled until December 2022.

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©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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