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Opinion Trump’s purge just got much more corrupt. Here’s what’s coming next.

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s abrupt decision to remove the inspector general of the State Department constitutes the latest in a string of corrupt efforts to remove public servants who prioritize real oversight and accountability over protecting Trump at all costs.

But in the case of Trump’s termination of Steve Linick, the State Department IG, this could end up looking far worse than we know. There’s a backstory here that has not yet gotten scrutiny — one that could make the firing appear even more corrupt.

House Democrats have discovered that the fired IG had mostly completed an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s widely criticized decision to skirt Congress with an emergency declaration to approve billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia last year, aides on the Foreign Affairs Committee tell me.

“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing,” Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement sent to me. “His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia.”

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Committee Democrats have also learned that the State Department was recently briefed on the IG’s conclusions in that investigation, aides say. They do not know what role this investigation — and its conclusions — played in Linick’s removal, if any.

But the committee is now trying to establish what those conclusions were and what links they might have to the firing, the aides confirm.

“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,” Engel said in the statement to me.

The White House has confirmed Linick’s firing came at Pompeo’s request. Trump claimed he no longer has “confidence” in Linick, a thin justification that highlights Trump’s purging of officials exercising oversight on his administration.

Many news organizations have reported that the fired IG had been examining charges that Pompeo had been directing a staffer to run errands for him. Some reported that Pompeo has undertaken abuses of taxpayer funds, including frequent visits to his home state of Kansas. It’s unclear whether these are linked to Linick’s firing.

But the fact that Linick has also mostly completed an investigation into the decision to fast-track arms to the Saudis adds another layer to this whole story.

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — and its Senate counterpart — have launched an investigation into Linick’s firing. In letters to the State Department and the White House, they demanded documents be preserved and raised the possibility that the firing might have been an “illegal act of retaliation” against an unspecified ongoing IG investigation into Pompeo.

Importantly, the Democrats are also demanding a full accounting of any and all IG investigations into Pompeo that are ongoing — and thus could have been the basis for the firing.

One of these IG investigations, it turns out, is into Pompeo’s fast-tracking of arms sales to the Saudis.

The Saudi arms deal

In the spring of 2019, the Trump administration pushed through a plan for more than $8 billion in weapons sales, almost entirely to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It employed an emergency declaration that under the law supposedly allowed it to proceed without the statutorily required 30-day period during which Congress must be formally notified and has the option of voting to block the sale.

The move was condemned by lawmakers in both parties who have increasingly been turning on continued U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which stretches back to the last administration and has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe. Congress subsequently voted to block the arms sales, with some Republican support, but Trump vetoed the effort.

At the time, the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Linick to launch an investigation of the State Department’s and Pompeo’s handling of the arms sales.

In their demand for an investigation, committee Democrats argued that the administration had failed to provide adequate justification for the emergency declaration. They noted that one core claim — that the threat from Iran required it — appeared to be a “pretext,” since the House had not been told by Pompeo of the need for the sale in a briefing on Iran only days before.

The Democrats also raised questions about potential conflicts of interest surrounding a former State Department official who may have been obligated to recuse himself of involvement in the sale, given his previous role as a lobbyist for Raytheon Co., which made many weapons involved in the transfer.

In recent days, aides tell me, the committee has been informed by State Department officials that the IG’s investigation is mostly complete and that the IG’s office briefed State officials on its preliminary findings.

A spokesperson for Pompeo didn’t immediately return an email requesting comment.

Democrats demand a full accounting

Now, as part of Democrats’ demand for a full accounting of all investigations the IG had been running, they also want an accounting of what the IG found in its investigation of the arms sales.

“The administration should comply,” Engel told me.

Senator Robert Menendez (N.J), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, obliquely alluded to an ongoing IG investigation into the arms sales on NBC News. Menendez noted that IGs are being “massacred on Friday night” for “doing their job.”

To reiterate, we don’t know what the IG found on the arms sales, and it’s possible there’s no connection between that and his firing. But at a minimum, the firing of Linick, coming after the removal of numerous other IGs, already shows Trump’s efforts to purge the government of oversight and accountability on his administration are getting much worse.

And the timing here demands a full accounting of what the IG found on the arms sales and any possible connection to his firing.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who joined Menendez in advocating for Senate efforts to block the arms sales, pointed to the administration’s “coziness” with the Saudis, which has included a refusal to hold the royal family accountable over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and asked why Trump won’t use these arms sales to exercise “leverage to get them to change their behavior.”

“Everybody has been trying to figure out why this relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is so strangely close,” Murphy told me. “If Linick found out the reason, then Congress needs to know.”

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