Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said that he asked President Donald Trump to remove State Department Inspector General Steve Linick because the independent watchdog was “undermining” the department and wasn’t performing in a way that the top US diplomat wanted him to.
“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 told The Washington Post in his first public comments on the matter. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”
He did not go into details about what specifically displeased him about Linick’s job performance.
Speaking at the White House Monday, Trump repeatedly said he fired Linick – whom the President claimed not to know – at Pompeo’s request.
“I said, ‘Who appointed him?’ And they say, ‘President Obama.’ I said, ‘Look, I will terminate him.’ I don’t know what’s going on other than that. You would have to ask Mike Pompeo. They did ask me to do it, and I did it,” Trump said.
Trump informed Congress on Friday of his intent to fire Linick. A senior State Department official told CNN then that Pompeo had made the recommendation.
The Office of Inspector General acts as an independent watchdog of the State Department. One of its core values is “integrity.” “We maintain our independence and act with courage, honesty, and professionalism. Our work is fact-based, objective, and supported by sufficient evidence that meets professional standards,” it states on its website.
A former senior State Department official told CNN that “an independent IG’s job is to be that: independent. If the IG is doing his job, the IG is going to be at odds with the seventh floor. The IGs job is to uncover waste fraud and abuse,” they said.
IG investigations into Pompeo
On Friday night, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, revealed that Pompeo had been under investigation by the Inspector General’s office. A Democratic aide told CNN this weekend that the IG had been probing whether Pompeo made a staffer perform a variety of personal errands, including walking his dog.
Engel said Monday that the ousted IG had almost finished an investigation into Pompeo’s decision to fast-track an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Later on Monday a congressional aide confirmed that Pompeo had refused to sit for an interview with the inspector general’s office as part of that investigation.
Pompeo claimed he was not aware that Linick was investigating him at the time he recommended that the IG be removed. According to the Post, he only knew about one case “involving a national security matter.”
“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,” Pompeo 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,” he said.
Pompeo would not address questions related to whether he asked government employees to run errands for him, telling the Post, “I’m not going to answer the host of unsubstantiated allegations about any of that.”
Former State Department official Laurel Miller noted on Twitter that “it’s not plausible that Pompeo would not know about an IG investigation *of himself* until ’24 to 48 hours’ before it’s done because the target of an investigation would be notified and interviewed.”
Trump, speaking at the White House Monday, suggested that the top US diplomat may have thought he “was being treated unfairly.” Although he said he did not know about the purported investigation into potential misuse of staff, the President downplayed the seriousness of such a probe.
“Maybe he’s busy, and maybe he’s negotiating with Kim Jong Un, OK, about nuclear weapons. So that he’d say, ‘Please, could you walk my dog? Do you mind walking my dog? I’m talking to Kim Jong Un,’ ” Trump said. “Or, ‘I’m talking to President Xi about paying us for some of the damage they’ve caused to the world and to us, please walk my dog.’ To who, a Secret Service person or somebody, right? I don’t know.”
“I’d rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes because maybe his wife isn’t there or his kids aren’t there, you know,” he said.
The State Department has not replied to requests for comment about the purported IG investigations.
CNN reported last summer that Democrats on a key House congressional committee are investigating allegations from a whistleblower within the State Department about Pompeo and his family’s use of taxpayer-funded Diplomatic Security detail. Susan Pompeo’s active role at both the State Department and the CIA had drawn criticism.
‘An equal opportunity pain in the neck’
On Monday, State Department Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao also suggested to the Post that leaks from the Office of Inspector General played a role in Linick’s removal, but said they did not have evidence that the ousted IG was personally involved with the leaks.
However, Neil Barofsky, former Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program at the Treasury Department under former President Barack Obama, told CNN that he believed the claim that Linick had mishandled sensitive information “strikes (him) as extraordinarily unlikely.”
“My reaction … is they’re just saying things to try to establish a counter narrative. I find it, at least on its face, very unconvincing,” he said.
The former senior State Department official noted that “IGs are not popular people because the very nature of their job is to investigate colleagues.”
“Linick is a very qualified individual and did his job well,” they said.
As the State Department inspector general, Linick issued two scathing reports about the agency under the Trump administration – one that found that top officials in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs subjected employees to “disrespectful and hostile treatment,” accusations of disloyalty, and retaliation and another that found that high-ranking Trump administration political appointees within the State Department improperly retaliated against a career civil servant during Rex Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state.
The former senior State Department official said that the Trump administration had accepted Linick’s work in the past, although “some people would criticize him for being a little too lenient in his findings,” particularly on the latter investigation into retaliation.
Linick also oversaw the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. His May 2016 report on the probe was critical of Clinton, saying the former secretary failed to follow the rules or inform key department staff regarding her use of the private server.
Another former State Department official said Linick “worked very closely with career staff and leadership to craft recommendations that were building to implement and improve, so I actually found his office to be very professional and very constructive in its investigative style.”
Former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Linick “an equal opportunity pain in the neck,” explaining that “he was seen as tough and challenging when I was at State.”
“But we also engaged with him through appropriate channels, respected his independence and left him room to do his job. That’s the difference,” said Psaki, who is a CNN contributor.
Pence ally taking over
A State Department spokesperson said Friday that former career foreign service officer Stephen Akard, an ally of Vice President Mike Pence, would take on the role of inspector general, pointing out in a statement that he had been confirmed by the Senate in September 2019 to lead the Office of Foreign Missions.
There are questions of whether Akard will continue the investigations started under his predecessor’s tenure. Harold Geisel, the former acting State Department Inspector General from 2008-2013, told CNN that “the answer is not necessarily, but usually.”
“If an investigation was closed suddenly it would be unusual and probably noted in the internal audits which the IGs give one another. So it can be done. But it would be most usual to continue the process until there are findings,” he said.
Akard left the foreign service at a junior to mid-range level and went to work for Pence as head of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. He worked as as a special assistant in the Executive Secretariat, as a political officer and general officer at Embassy Brussels, and served as a consular officer at the US Consulate General in Mumbai.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Nikki Carvajal contributed to this report.