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Fired State Department watchdog who was investigating Pompeo appears before Congress

State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was fired last month, leaves a meeting at the Capitol in October. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

After a day-long interview with the State Department inspector general who was fired last month amid investigations of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s conduct, lawmakers of both parties said they came away with little better sense of the specifics surrounding his termination.

“What was disturbing was not so much anything he said as . . . here we are deposing an IG who got fired for doing his job,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who took part in the virtual interview jointly conducted by members and staff of the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

President Trump abruptly fired Steve Linick, the department watchdog, last month at what both he and Pompeo said was Pompeo’s request. Pompeo has said that Linick pursued investigations of administration policies he disagreed with, that his office was responsible for leaks, and that he was not supportive of the secretary’s “ethos statement” on department behavior.

In a brief opening statement, Linick said that “the record shows that I have served without regard to politics, having been nominated as an inspector general by presidents from both parties,” he said. He served first at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and then for seven years at the State Department.

During questioning by lawmakers, Linick confirmed that his office was looking into allegations that Pompeo and his wife asked personnel to do personal errands for them, as well as the administration’s bypassing of congressional approval for arms sales to Saudi Arabia, according to a person familiar with the interview, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the closed-door session.

But the inspector general did not get into details, and he refused to speculate as to whether either of those matters had anything to do with why he was fired, the person said.

As in the House impeachment proceedings, the two sides of the aisle came at the Linick issue from different directions. Republicans, while asserting the absolute right of the president to fire any inspector general, have also sought to put meat on the bones of Pompeo’s vague charges that Linick misused his office. Democrats have said that proper congressional oversight includes ascertaining whether the secretary of state wanted to get rid of him because Linick was investigating Pompeo himself.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said he questioned Linick about leaks from an investigation that concluded last year that found the department office of policy planning had acted against a career employee for having served under the Obama administration and being of Iranian heritage.

When those conclusions appeared in the media before the report was released, State Department leadership instructed Linick to seek a review by the Council of Inspectors General. On the council’s instructions, he asked Glenn Fine — at the time the acting inspector general for the Defense Department — to look into the matter.

Linick told lawmakers that Fine had cleared his office of responsibility for leaking, Zeldin said, but at the same time refused to answer questions about who else might have done it, because the investigation was still “pending.”

“There was too much that he was forgetting throughout the day, and there was way too much cherry-picking of which questions he felt like answering,” Zeldin said.

While Linick declined to talk about individual investigations, “the Republicans tried to pursue various alternative theories” about why he was let go, said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.).

“After sitting through parts of it, I still cannot point to any legitimate reason for why he might have been fired,” Malinowski said.

The interview took place despite a State Department letter to Linick’s attorney on Tuesday warning against disclosure of “any classified information” or “information that may be subject to executive privilege and other protections.” It described “Congress’s limited oversight role” in Trump’s decision to terminate the inspector general.

The letter, signed by Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao, said it is “critical” that Linick be accompanied to any interview by a State Department lawyer to prevent classified disclosures. A similar State Department demand was made, and similarly ignored, by officials who gave depositions and testimony before the House’s impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Democrats have said they are expanding their investigation into Linick’s firing as they try to learn more about Trump’s sidelining of independent watchdogs in several agencies this spring. The investigation is being led by Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Oversight Committee; and Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A congressional aide said a transcript of Linick’s interview would be released as soon as early next week.

The committees also have asked to interview Bulatao, who was a classmate of Pompeo’s at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper; acting State Department legal adviser Marik String; and Lisa Kenna, Pompeo’s executive secretary.

In a separate letter to Engel on those requests, Bulatao said that “it is difficult to understand why the Foreign Affairs Committee believes this action would warrant the time or resources contemplated by the Committee’s several requests for transcribed interviews of Department personnel.”

Bulatao said Linick’s removal “fell within the lawful prerogative of the Executive Branch” and cited inspector general terminations in previous administrations upheld by courts and unquestioned by Congress.

“At the same time, the Department is prepared to further address the Committee’s interest in those Departmental concerns,” the letter said, without elaboration.

White House deputy counsel Michael M. Purpura wrote a similar letter to Engel this week in response to requests for documents on the firing, saying Congress had no authority to investigate the matter.

In his statement, Linick said that “every minute of my work . . . has been devoted to promoting the efficiency and effectiveness of both agencies, along with ensuring that taxpayer funds are protected against waste, fraud, and abuse.”

“In carrying out my work, I have always taken the facts and evidence wherever they lead and have been faithfully committed to conducting independent and impartial oversight, as required by law,” the statement said.

Pompeo has denied the May 15 firing was an act of retaliation and said he did not know about investigations of allegations about his potential abuse of power.

Linick was looking into internal State Department allegations that Pompeo asked a low-level political appointee to run personal errands, including walking his dog, and into travel expenses the State Department paid when Susan Pompeo accompanied her husband on trips abroad.

In addition, lawmakers had asked Linick to look into the State Department’s role in sidestepping Congress to approve a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo has conceded that he was aware of that investigation, because he provided written answers to questions to the inspector general about the transaction. That report, said to be in draft form, with results already briefed to the State Department, has not yet been released.

Trump has replaced Linick with acting inspector general Stephen Akard, a political appointee who worked on economic development for Indiana when Vice President Pence was governor. Akard will maintain his position as director of foreign missions, raising potential concerns about a conflict of interest because he still works for the agency he is assigned to monitor as a watchdog.

In his letter to Engel, Bulatao said Akard would recuse himself from “any particular audits or investigations where such a step would be appropriate.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.