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Pompeo says he didn’t know fired inspector general was investigating him

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April. (Pool photo by Nicholas Kamm/Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed Monday that he asked President Trump to fire the State Department inspector general because his work was “undermining” the department’s mission, but he declined to describe any specific concerns.

In a telephone interview, Pompeo said the decision was not an act of political retaliation, because he did not know beforehand that the official, Steve Linick, was investigating allegations that he had an aide run personal errands for him.

“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.”

Democrats in Congress on May 16 launched an investigation into President Trump's firing of State Department’s inspector general Steve A. Linick. (Video: Reuters)

“I actually know how that works,” he said. “I had an IG at the CIA, not the IG that I had chosen but an IG that was there before me. He did fantastic work. He made us better. Linick wasn’t that.”

Appearing before the House Appropriations Committee last year, Linick said in his first five years as inspector general his office issued more than 600 reports in which they identified $1.7 billion in potential savings.

Congressional Democrats have expressed outrage over the sudden and unexplained dismissal Friday night of Linick and want to launch an investigation of whether his firing was improper or illegal.

Pompeo said no reason needs to be given for presidential appointees such as Linick to be fired.

“The president obviously has the right to have an inspector general,” he said. “Just like every presidentially confirmed position, I can terminate them. They serve at his pleasure for any reason or no reason.”

Brian Bulatao, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, said concern over Linick had grown because of a “pattern of unauthorized disclosures, or leaks,” to the news media about investigations that were in an early draft form. He said that officials had no evidence Linick was personally responsible for the leaks but that the disclosures had the potential of tainting the outcome of ongoing probes.

Bulatao said the concern came to a head last fall with media reports about one investigation citing “two government sources involved in carrying out the investigation.”

“You know the IG is normally charged with carrying out the investigation,” he said. “It certainly was a very strong finger-pointing at IG Linick’s way.”

Bulatao said Linick had ignored the directions of then-deputy secretary of state John Sullivan to refer the leak investigation to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency so that an inspector general from another agency could be appointed to look into it.

“Our understanding is he picked another fed agency on his own, to pick the person he wanted to grade his own homework, which sets up a whole apparent conflict of interest,” Bulatao said.

Bulatao also faulted Linick for not promoting Pompeo’s professional ethos statement, laying out basic principles of respect and dedication, through training sessions and other activities. The Office of Inspector General was the only State Department bureau or mission that did not promote it, he said.

Inspectors general, whose job is to be a watchdog calling out corruption and malfeasance, are rarely beloved in any agency, because they are supposed to point out practices that are falling short and recommend improvements. They fiercely protect their independence and tend to not even mingle socially with senior management, to prevent conflicts of interest.

Some of Linick’s reports had drawn fire within the State Department. Last year, he issued a report describing abusive leadership and retaliation against career employees in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs considered disloyal because of their political beliefs. In another report, Linick’s office found appointees tried to remove a career employee from a high-level policy office because of questions about her political loyalty and work on the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration.

Linick is believed to have been investigating allegations that Pompeo directed a political appointee to run errands for him and his wife, including retrieving his dry cleaning, walking his dog and making dinner reservations.

Pompeo said he was unaware of the investigation. He said he recalled only one case, involving a national security matter, in which he knew of an investigation until shortly before a report was released to the public.

“It is not possible that this decision, or my recommendation rather, to the president rather, was based on any effort to retaliate for any investigation that was going on or is currently going on,” he said. “Because I simply don’t know. I’m not briefed on it. I usually see these investigations in final draft form 24 hours, 48 hours before the IG is prepared to release them.

“So it’s simply not possible for this to be an act of retaliation. End of story.”

Pompeo declined to describe what he considers Linick’s failings, or whether his dismissal had anything to do with the prior reports outlining acts of political retribution.

Pompeo also declined to say whether he had ever asked government employees to run personal errands for him or his wife, who plays a role in the State Department familiarizing herself with the needs of employees and their families, particularly those working overseas.

“I’m not going to answer the host of unsubstantiated allegations about any of that,” he said.

Pompeo said he does not believe that letting Linick go sends a message to inspectors general throughout the government that they can be fired for doing their jobs.

“I actually hope the message that went out to the State Department is that every employee has the same mission set,” he said. “We’ve talked about one team, one mission here since the very day that I came here and talked about getting our swagger back. That applies to every employee of the Department of State, wherever you may work, in our legal shop, in our regional bureaus or the inspector general’s operation.”

Pompeo dismissed complaints about morale, including those that came after Trump referred to the “Deep State Department,” with Pompeo standing beside him and smiling. Many career officers said they consider the designation offensive.

“There are 74,000-plus people here State Department,” Pompeo said. “The fact that you’ve been able to touch a couple that weren’t happy with what I did is unsurprising to me. I am focused on the mission. We have a constitutional responsibility, an operation designed to support President Trump’s foreign policy. That’s what I’m focused on every day, even in these challenging times of covid-19.”