Fired State Department Watchdog Was Probing Pompeo’s Requirement Of Staffer To Walk Dog, Pick Up Laundry
Chief diplomat faced allegations in inspector general probe that he asked an aide to walk the dog, pick up his laundry. Fired State Department Watchdog Was Probing Pompeo’s Requirement Of Staffer To Walk Dog, Pick Up Laundry
The State Department inspector general ousted by President Trump last week was conducting an inquiry into allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had misused government resources, including by asking an aide to walk his dog, according to people familiar with the matter.
Steve Linick, who has served as the department’s top watchdog since September 2013, was examining allegations that Mr. Pompeo had directed an aide to perform personal tasks for him and his wife, Susan, according to these people.
The personal tasks in question included walking the Pompeos’ dog, picking up their dry cleaning and making restaurant reservations on their behalf, they said.
Mr. Trump on Friday provided Congress with notice of his intent to terminate Mr. Linick within 30 days. A State Department official confirmed in a statement Saturday that Mr. Linick had been fired, and that Stephen Akard, a former diplomat, would assume the duties of the inspector general. Mr. Akard has headed the department’s Office of Foreign Missions since September 2019.
The dismissal of Mr. Linick drew criticism from Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers, many of whom argued that Mr. Trump didn’t give Congress a sufficient reason to fire the inspector general.
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) wrote on Twitter Saturday night that Mr. Trump “has not provided the kind of justification for the removal of IG Linick required by this law,” referring to a 2008 statute that requires a president to detail the reasons for removing an inspector general.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) agreed with Ms. Collins, asking Mr. Trump to provide a rationale for removing Mr. Linick by June 1. “I want to work with you to ensure that the enemy here is wasteful government spending, not the government watchdogs charged with protecting the taxpayer,” he wrote in a letter Monday.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) called the move a “threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” Other Republicans said they weren’t concerned. “I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) said during an interview with CNN on Sunday.
The White House declined to comment Monday. A White House official said on Saturday that Mr. Pompeo recommended removing Mr. Linick and the president agreed with his recommendation.
Peter Navarro, a senior adviser to the president, said in an ABC interview on Sunday that Mr. Trump “clearly has the legal authority” to remove Mr. Linick.
In addition to the probe into Mr. Pompeo’s use of an aide, Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year asked Mr. Linick to investigate the Trump administration’s declaration of an emergency to approve more than $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, over congressional objections.
One person familiar with the matter said it was unclear whether this investigation, which was ongoing, contributed to Mr. Linick’s termination.
Mr. Trump said in his Friday night letter to congressional officials that he was removing Mr. Linick because he no longer had confidence in him. He didn’t expand on his rationale.
Mr. Linick’s removal is the latest move against inspectors general across the government by the president. Last month, Mr. Trump replaced the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, Glenn Fine, who had been in charge of a team monitoring the pandemic stimulus law. Days earlier, he fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community.
Mr. Trump also moved this month to replace the deputy inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who had been acting as the agency’s chief watchdog since January.
Behind Trump’s Removal of Inspectors General: Support For His Agenda
He views himself ‘a victim of overly aggressive actions,’ according to one senior administration official.
President Trump’s firing of the State Department inspector general is the latest move in his effort to restock the federal government with officials he sees as supportive of his agenda, according to advisers, after what he sees as a series of politically motivated investigations into him and his top allies.
The president has long bridled at oversight efforts by the Democratic-controlled House—whose multiple investigative targets include Mr. Trump’s immigration policies, the issuance of White House security clearances and the president’s personal finances—and at media criticism of his administration.
He views himself as “a victim of overly aggressive actions,” according to one senior administration official. His replacement of several inspectors general and acting inspectors general in recent months, in addition to Steve Linick at the State Department, is a manifestation of that same frustration over actions aimed at the ranks of his own government, advisers say.
“I think we’ve been treated very unfairly by inspector generals,” Mr. Trump told reporters Monday. “I can go into instances, but I’m not going to do it now.”
Previous presidents also have chafed at oversight efforts and clashed with inspectors general, but Mr. Trump’s approach has been more aggressive.
Michael Bromwich, who served as the Justice Department inspector general during the Clinton administration, said the only moment that even approached this was President Reagan’s firing of all the existing inspectors general when he took office. He later rehired some of them amid criticism.
“This threatens the whole integrity of the inspector-general system,” Mr. Bromwich said.
The president has the authority to remove an inspector general, but those removals have been rare. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, “since 1981, inspectors general have remained in their positions during each presidential transition.”
In 2009, President Obama dismissed the inspector general of the Corporation for National Community Service, a move that drew bipartisan questions at the time.
Mr. Trump also recently criticized the government whistleblower process, which often is handled by department inspectors general.
“This whole Whistleblower racket needs to be looked at very closely, it is causing great injustice & harm,” Mr. Trump tweeted last weekend, an apparent reference to former government vaccine specialist, Rick Bright, who was moved out of his job and is now criticizing the administration’s coronavirus response.
On Monday, Mr. Trump criticized the whistleblower complaint prompted by his July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which ultimately led to Mr. Trump’s impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate earlier this year. “He was a fake whistleblower, and it was a phony, disgraceful period of time,” he said.
In early April, Mr. Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community, who deemed that whistleblower complaint credible and pushed to share it with Congress. Multiple witnesses during the impeachment inquiry supported the claims outlined in the Ukraine whistleblower complaint.
Mr. Trump said Monday that when an inspector general is held over from a previous administration of the opposite party, “it could very well be that you’d be treated unfairly.” Mr. Atkinson was appointed to his post by Mr. Trump in 2018.
Mr. Atkinson was appointed by Mr. Trump in 2018 while Mr. Linick was an Obama appointee.
Since his acquittal, the president has sought to exert more control over staffing throughout the government. One person close to the president said Mr. Trump is seeking more “responsive personnel.”
There are 74 inspectors general across the government, according to the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. Half are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate while the other half are appointed by agency heads. They are expected to provide oversight, reporting to both the agency and Congress.
Rebecca Jones, policy counsel at the organization, said vigorous government oversight requires independent inspectors general and a sitting president that respects the process.
“They need an administration that values them and values the purposes of IG and independent oversight,” she said, adding that while it is the president’s right to remove an inspector general, “It should take more than just sending a letter to Congress and saying ‘I don’t like this guy.’ ”
Democrats and some Republicans are asking for Mr. Trump’s justification for the move against Mr. Linick, who was conducting inquiries concerning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Inspectors General help ensure transparency and accountability, both of which are critical for taxpayers to have confidence in their government,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) wrote in a letter to Mr. Trump. “They should be free from partisan political interference, from either the Executive or Legislative branch.”
But at a private Senate GOP policy lunch attended by Mr. Trump on Tuesday, senators didn’t raise the issue during a question session, according to attendees. Some lawmakers expressed sympathy for Mr. Trump’s issues with oversight.
“Look at what his presidency has been like from the time he was elected,” said Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, in an interview. “And he has been fighting that kind of election redo. I’m not saying that he does not create some entanglements, but by and large you can’t blame him for being leery.”
The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, noted in a floor speech on Monday that Mr. Linick was the fifth inspector general to be removed or replaced by Mr. Trump in the past few months.
“They all shared one thing in common—they had the audacity to do their jobs and speak the truth,” Mr. Schumer said. “And what is Donald Trump’s reaction when he hears the truth? Fire the people who spoke it.”
The president also recently replaced a number of acting inspectors general. They include Glenn Fine, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, who had been charged with monitoring the roughly $2 trillion pandemic stimulus law, and Christi Grimm, the deputy inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, who had been acting as the agency’s chief watchdog since January.
Also on Friday, Mr. Trump made changes for the inspector-general position for the Transportation Department. He nominated Eric Soskin, a career lawyer with the Justice Department, to be the permanent inspector general and designated Howard Elliott, currently the administrator of the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to be the acting inspector general until Mr. Soskin could be confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. Elliot replaces the individual currently serving as acting inspector general, Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm, who returns to his role as deputy. House Democrats criticized the move, questioning Mr. Elliott’s experience and independence. A Transportation Department official said he was qualified and would recuse himself from any conflicts.
Democrats Scrutinize Pompeo Dinners. ‘All We Did Was Talk About Kansas.’
Democrats are looking closely at the secretary of state’s taxpayer-funded dinners, including one with guests from his home state.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a dinner at the State Department for guests with ties to Kansas—the state where he had been urged to run for Senate—one of a series of private events that Democrats in Congress are now scrutinizing as Mr. Pompeo comes under fire for recommending the removal of his agency’s watchdog.
Democrats are examining whether Mr. Pompeo used taxpayer resources for personal purposes, and are partly focused on a series of private events, known as “Madison dinners,” sponsored by Mr. Pompeo and involving political, diplomatic and media figures.
That scrutiny has intensified in the days since Mr. Pompeo advised President Trump to fire Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, while under investigation for allegedly using government staff for personal errands and for his emergency declaration to sell arms to Middle East allies, sidestepping Congress. Mr. Pompeo on Wednesday denied that Mr. Linick’s firing was retaliation for those investigations.
Among the attendees at the Kansas-specific dinner at the State Department a few months ago was Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.). The senator, who is retiring, said “it was a real treat” to be hosted in the historic diplomatic rooms, along with other guests who had Kansas ties.
“All we did was talk about Kansas, Wichita, just a bunch of stories that we shared and had a good time,” Mr. Roberts said. “There was nothing more to it than that, and I think he’s had a series of those.”
Democrats contend that the Kansas event and other dinners, which weren’t on Mr. Pompeo’s public schedule, served political rather than foreign-policy objectives as the secretary builds a network for a possible future run for president or Senate.
The State Department didn’t respond to requests for comment on the dinners.
“What type of foreign-affairs work goes on in Kansas?” asked Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Menendez has asked for a list of the dinners, guests, remarks delivered by Mr. Pompeo, their cost and records of agency approvals. House Oversight Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats also sent Mr. Pompeo a letter Thursday asking for guest lists for the Madison dinners and “all ethics guidance sought or received relating” to the gatherings.
Mr. Menendez also sent letters to the Office of Special Counsel in October and December seeking an examination of possible improper political activity by Mr. Pompeo. The missives cited the secretary’s travel to Kansas and meetings with prospective political donors, including during official travel. He said Wednesday that he hadn’t received a response.
A guest at one of the other Madison dinners characterized them as “clearly soft diplomacy” and said attendees included a representative of a foreign country.
The Kansas dinner attended by Mr. Roberts took place about a month after Mr. Pompeo told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he wasn’t interested in running for Senate in Kansas this year. The secretary represented the Wichita area in the U.S. House before joining the Trump administration, and Mr. McConnell had been recruiting Mr. Pompeo to run to replace Mr. Roberts.
Mr. McConnell and other Republicans in the state and in Washington are worried that if Mr. Pompeo doesn’t jump in to clear the crowded GOP primary field, they could lose a Senate race in Kansas for the first time since 1932. That would dramatically boost the odds of Democrats winning control of the Senate in November.
Fundraising is a large part of Mr. McConnell’s eagerness for the secretary to run for Senate, a person familiar with the matter said. Republican candidates in Kansas have struggled to raise as much money as Democratic candidate Barbara Bollier, and Mr. McConnell believes a Pompeo campaign would save the National Republican Senatorial Committee—the Senate GOP’s campaign arm—between $15 million and $20 million, the person said.
Mr. Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas as secretary of state, interviews with local news outlets and apparent courting of potential campaign donors stoked speculation last year that he planned to enter the race.
But a person close to Mr. Pompeo told The Wall Street Journal last week that the secretary still had no plans for a Senate bid. The filing deadline for the race is June 1.
Mr. Roberts said he didn’t see anything wrong with the dinner he attended, which he said offered an escape from partisan rancor. “The more that people can get together off the floor of the Senate, that’s a good thing,” he said.
The topic of the Kansas Senate race came up at the dinner, Mr. Roberts said. “We kidded about that whole thing,” he said.
Mr. Menendez said Wednesday he was aware of the Kansas-themed dinner, and said the events hosted by Mr. Pompeo at the State Department “seem to take the shape of those [people] who you would bring together if you were thinking of running for office.”
Mr. Pompeo dismissed Mr. Menendez’s inquiry Wednesday and challenged the senator’s own ethics record. Mr. Menendez was indicted in 2015 for his alleged participation in a yearslong bribery scheme involving a Florida eye doctor. A federal judge declared a mistrial in the case in November 2017 after a jury failed to reach a verdict. The Justice Department decided not to proceed with a retrial. Mr. Menendez responded Wednesday by saying that Mr. Pompeo was attempting to divert attention from his own controversies.
Mr. Pompeo’s hosting of the events has prompted criticism from some former U.S. diplomats, who said they were held to stricter standards regarding the use of taxpayer funds.
Brett Bruen, who served as a U.S. diplomat in the Obama administration, said most of the guests reported to have attended the dinners “do not have an obvious foreign-policy expertise,” while acknowledging that there may be situations where professional athletes could be recruited to serve as sports ambassadors, for example.
“Simply to have celebrities or CEOs over to the State Department—and especially those that are almost entirely domestically focused—is quite questionable,” he said.
But Thomas Pickering, whose lengthy diplomatic career included stints as United Nations ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, said there is precedent for the secretary hosting dinners.
“Madeleine Albright gave frequent dinners in which she invited sometimes outsiders to come and comment on foreign policy to her and to members of her immediate staff,” he said, noting that he had attended some of the dinners, which were limited to 10 or at most 15 attendees.
Patrick Kennedy, who served as undersecretary of state for management in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, said that in evaluating the propriety of such an event, he would examine the stated purpose of the event and a list of its attendees.
“If the subject matter was advancing U.S. national-security interests, and the guest list was opinion leaders, editorial-page writers, think-tank people, members of Congress, then I would regard it as a legitimate activity of the secretary of state,” he said, recalling that former secretaries John Kerry and Hillary Clinton had hosted some private dinners.
Some Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were more concerned about Mr. Pompeo’s role in the Trump administration’s invoking of an emergency last year to force through the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Democratic and some Republican lawmakers expressed opposition at the time to the Saudi arms deal, which the administration justified by citing escalating and imminent security threats posed by Iran. Democrats said the claim of an emergency involving Iran was a ruse and last June asked Mr. Linick to investigate.
“I’ve never understood why this administration is so tight with the Saudis, and if the inspector general had a lead on what was causing this cozy relationship, we need to know about it,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.).
“On the other stuff, I mean, should the dinners have been on a schedule? Yes,” Mr. Murphy said. “But I think the secretary of state probably should be able to have social dinners with important people.”
The State Department hasn’t responded to requests for comment on the emergency declaration made in May 2019. Mr. Pompeo on Wednesday declined to answer questions on Mr. Linick’s inquiry into the declaration or the arms transfer. He said he had no knowledge of the nature or scope of the inspector general’s investigations.
David Kensinger, a longtime Kansas GOP consultant, said he believed the investigation by Mr. Menendez was “100%” intended to discourage Mr. Pompeo from running for Senate in Kansas.
“These questions only seem to come up around campaign deadlines,” he said.
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