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Trump Ousted State Dept. Watchdog at Pompeo’s Urging; Democrats Open Inquiry

2020-05-17 02:11:51

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged President Trump to fire the official responsible for fighting waste and fraud in his department, a White House official said Saturday, a recommendation certain to come under scrutiny after congressional Democrats opened an investigation into what they said “may be an act of illegal retaliation.”

Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, immediately called the decision to remove Mr. Linick an “outrageous act” meant to protect Mr. Pompeo from accountability.

By Saturday, Mr. Engel and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had opened an investigation into Mr. Linick’s removal, citing a pattern of “politically motivated firing of inspectors general.”

In letters to the White House, the State Department and Mr. Linick, the two Democrats wrote that they believed Mr. Linick had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Mr. Pompeo and that Mr. Pompeo had responded by recommending that Mr. Linick be fired. The lawmakers did not provide any more details, but a Democratic aide said that Mr. Linick had been looking into whether Mr. Pompeo improperly used a political appointee at the State Department to perform personal tasks for him and his wife.

A White House official, speaking on the condition on anonymity, confirmed on Saturday that Mr. Pompeo had recommended Mr. Linick’s removal and said that Mr. Trump had agreed. A spokeswoman for Mr. Pompeo did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

“Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation,” the lawmakers wrote.

Since starting his current job in April 2018, Mr. Pompeo has come under growing public scrutiny for what critics say is his use of the State Department’s resources for personal endeavors. Mr. Menendez has called for Mr. Pompeo to explain how he can justify frequent trips to Kansas, his adopted home state, using State Department funds and aircraft. He has brought his wife, Susan Pompeo, on many trips abroad, telling others she is a “force multiplier” for him. And CNN reported last year that congressional officials were looking at potential misuse of diplomatic security personnel for personal errands. That did not result in the opening of a formal inquiry.

In their letters, Mr. Engel and Mr. Menendez requested that the administration turn over records and information related to the firing of Mr. Linick as well as “records of all I.G. investigations involving the Office of the Secretary that were open, pending, or incomplete at the time of Mr. Linick’s firing.”

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the few congressional Republicans who have been publicly critical of the president, denounced Mr. Linick’s dismissal Saturday evening.

“The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” Mr. Romney said on Twitter. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”

Few Republicans have commented on the move. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who in the past has made a point of defending inspectors general, said in a statement that “a general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.”

Mr. Trump’s decision to remove Mr. Linick is the latest in a series of ousters aimed at inspectors general who the president and his allies believe are opposed to his agenda, upending the traditional independence of the internal watchdog agencies.

In his letter informing Ms. Pelosi about Mr. Linick’s removal, which was obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Trump wrote that “it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General.”

“That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General,” the president added.

Under law, the administration must notify Congress 30 days before formally terminating an inspector general. Mr. Linick is expected to leave his post after that period.

Two other investigations spearheaded by Mr. Linick’s office created friction among senior political appointees at the State Department. The office said in November that it had found that appointees at the agency, when it was led by Rex W. Tillerson, had retaliated against a career civil servant, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, because of her Iranian-American ethnicity and a perception that she held political views different from those of top Trump officials. Brian H. Hook, then the head of the office of policy planning, where Ms. Nowrouzzadeh worked, was scrutinized in that inquiry. Mr. Hook is now the special representative for Iran and works closely with Mr. Pompeo.

Mr. Linick’s office also found in August that two political appointees in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs had harassed career employees based on claims that the employees were “disloyal” based on their perceived political views.


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