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Pompeo says no retaliation in inspector general’s removal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the State Department on Wednesday. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool/Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed aside questions Wednesday about his request that President Trump fire the State Department inspector general, saying he knew nothing about investigations the office was carrying out and blaming leaks about them on a Democratic senator once accused of “taking bribes.”

During a brief news conference, Pompeo declined to provide specifics on why he was displeased with Inspector General Steve Linick’s performance.

“In this case, I recommended to the president that Steve Linick be terminated,” he said. “I frankly should have done it some time ago.”

Pompeo said he would share his rationale about “personnel matters” with “the appropriate people.” He did not respond to a question about whether the State Department would meet a congressional request to supply communications and records related to Linick by Friday.

But he denied the firing was retaliation for investigations into the State Department’s role in the administration bypassing Congress in deciding to sell arms to Saudi Arabia last year, or allegations that Pompeo and his wife, Susan, used a political appointee for personal errands.

“I didn’t have access to that information, so I couldn’t possibly have retaliated,” Pompeo said.

“I have no sense of what investigations are taking place inside the inspector general’s office,” he said. “I’ve seen the various stories, that someone was walking my dog, to sell arms, to my dry cleaner. I mean, it’s all just crazy. It’s all crazy stuff.”

At the same time, however, Pompeo acknowledged that he provided written answers months ago to questions from the inspector general’s office in the Saudi arms probe, about which a number of State Department officials have been interviewed. Department officials were briefed this spring on draft results of the inquiry.

An investigation into the alleged use of political appointees in the State Department to perform tasks such as dog walking and picking up dry cleaning for Pompeo and his wife stemmed in part from reports submitted to an inspector general hotline, according to people who spoke about the matter on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.

Over the past year, Linick has completed investigations finding that senior officials in one State Department office harassed career staffers who had served during the Obama administration, that an Iranian American career civil servant was retaliated against because of her ethnicity and a perceived political bias, and a Republican businessman sent as ambassador to Finland had management problems at the embassy.

But “if you look at what has been reported on State during this administration, nothing so far would strike you as this is so outrageous that this guy needs to go,” a Democratic congressional aide said. “Which begs the question of what was he still working on that got people’s hackles up?”

Linick is the fourth internal government watchdog to be fired by Trump in recent weeks, adding to the tension between the administration and Congress — and within Congress — even as the coronavirus pandemic has dominated legislative attention.

Several Republican senators have joined with Democrats in criticizing the action taken against Linick and the lack of explanation. Trump has said he didn’t even know the inspector general but took Pompeo’s advice that he should be terminated.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Wednesday that it was “disappointing that Secretary Pompeo didn’t seize the opportunity to clear up the questions surrounding” the issue and that “our investigation will go forward.”

In letters sent Saturday to the State Department and the White House, Engel and Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested documents and said that “we intend to look deeply into this matter.” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) also wrote to Trump asking for a “detailed” report on the reasons for the firing by June 1.

Pompeo criticized Menendez, saying that “leaks on the investigations” were all coming through his office. Menendez, he said, was “not someone who I look to for ethics guidance,” since he was “criminally prosecuted” and his own Senate colleagues “said basically that he was taking bribes.”

Menendez was indicted in 2015 on charges that he did favors for and received gifts from a political donor. He pleaded not guilty. After a trial ended in a hung jury, the government dismissed all charges against him, but he was later admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee.

In a statement, Menendez said Pompeo “now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions. Not surprisingly, he has lashed out at me and others conducting congressional oversight. The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful.”

In an interview with The Washington Post this week, Brian Bulatao, the department’s undersecretary for management, cited what he said was “very strong finger-pointing at IG Linick’s way” regarding leaks from his office.

Menendez was one of several lawmakers who had moved in recent years to hold up U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, amid charges of Saudi human rights abuses and use of U.S.-provided weapons to target civilians in the war in Yemen.

The holdups were vexing to Trump, who early in his administration had touted billions of dollars of proposed Saudi purchases as beneficial to the U.S. economy and efforts to counter Iranian aggression in the Middle East.

Under the usual arms sales process, the administration — through the State Department — is obligated to formally notify Congress of any proposed arms sale at least 30 days before it is approved. The power of lawmakers to stop a sale is limited. But in the vast majority of cases, the executive and legislative branches work together to try to avoid public conflict, and objections and questions are resolved informally before notification occurs.

In the case of more than $8 billion in sales to the Saudis, however, Congress dug in its heels. By last May, a frustrated administration decided to take action to circumvent legislative approval. Taking advantage of a rarely used provision in the arms export law, Trump, through the State Department, declared on May 24 that a national security “emergency,” related to Iran, made it necessary to bypass the notification and approval process.

The State Department’s office of legal council “gave a green light” to the declaration, according to a senior U.S. official.

Lawmakers cried foul, noting that Pompeo and military leaders, briefing the House on the Iranian threat in a closed session just three days earlier, had mentioned no emergency.

In a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in June, Engel called it a “phony emergency,” noting the Pompeo briefing and the fact that most of the ordered weapons had not yet been manufactured and would not be delivered for months or even years.

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, in charge of approval and notification of weapons sales, testified that there were three reasons for the emergency: the Iranian threat, the importance of maintaining the trust of regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, and the risk that Russia and China would fill whatever weapons sales gap the United States left open.

A week after the hearing, Democratic members of the committee wrote to Linick on June 20, asking him to open an investigation into whether the State Department’s determination of an “emergency” constituted an abuse of authority and whether there was a conflict of interest by officials with former ties to the defense industry who participated in the decision.

A former lobbyist for Raytheon who served in the State Department’s legislative affairs office left the department that same month amid reports that he was involved in the emergency decision. Raytheon manufactures the precision-guided missiles that formed a major part of the weapons sold to the Saudis.

In the course of the investigation, Linick’s office has interviewed virtually every State Department official who has anything to do with Saudi Arabia or arms sales. Pompeo declined a face-to-face interview. In his Wednesday news conference, he said that he responded “as best I can recall” but that “I don’t know the scope” of the inquiry.

It is unclear whether the investigation report on the arms sales, said to be completed in draft form, will be issued under new leadership in the inspector general’s office. Trump has said that Stephen J. Akard, the State Department director of foreign missions, will take over Linick’s job in an acting capacity.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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