Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sit for an interview with the State Department inspector general’s office as part of its probe into the administration’s move to bypass Congress and expedite last year’s $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia by declaring an emergency, a congressional aide told CNN Monday.
Neither the State Department nor the office of the inspector general responded to CNN’s request for comment on the matter.
The allegation Pompeo declined to cooperate with the investigation came after House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Eliot Engel, claimed the State Department inspector general fired by President Donald Trump on Friday, Steve Linick, had nearly completed an investigation into Pompeo’s controversial decision to fast-track the same arms sale.
“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing. His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia. 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, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement to CNN Monday.
Last May, the Trump administration declared an emergency to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to various countries – including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – citing the need to deter what it called “the malign influence” of Iran throughout the Middle East.
“These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement at the time, which put the value of the sales at $8.1 billion.
But the move drew bipartisan condemnation, with lawmakers decrying the precedent it sets, questioning the administration’s claims of an emergency and raising the issue of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Now, Engel says Pompeo might have removed the federal watchdog who was looking into his handling of the arms sale. Linick’s Saudi Arabia investigation was first reported by The Washington Post.
The revelation will increase scrutiny of Trump’s firing of Linick on Friday evening – the latest in a series of dismissals of independent government watchdogs tasked with oversight of the President’s administration. A senior State Department official previously confirmed to CNN that Pompeo recommended Linick be removed, but they did not know the reasons why.
IG was also investigating whether Pompeo made a staffer perform errands
In an interview with the Washington Post Monday, Pompeo said that he recommended Linick be fired because the independent watchdog 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 said in the interview with the Post. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”
The top US diplomat did not go into details about what specifically displeased him about Linick’s job performance.
Pompeo, in his first public comments on the matter, claimed he was not aware that Linick was investigating him at the time he recommended that the inspector general 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.
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.
That night, Engel, 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.
But at this time, House Democrats say they do not yet know which investigation was the biggest factor behind the decision to dismiss Linick.
“I wouldn’t assign percentages,” a Democratic committee aide said.
Democrats on both the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees are interested in learning more about Linick’s investigations into Pompeo, and Engel emphasized the importance of cooperation from the administration in his statement Monday.
“The administration should comply with the probe I launched with Senator Menendez and turn over all the records requested from the Department by Friday,” he said, a reference to Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Lawmakers demand answers
Trump’s latest late-night firing of an inspector general as the media’s attention was focused on the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 89,000 Americans, prompted immediate bipartisan criticism from lawmakers including Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a longtime proponent of inspectors general.
“As I’ve said before, Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG’s removal. A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress,” Grassley said on Saturday, referring to the justification for Linick’s firing cited by Trump.
Grassley told CNN’s Manu Raju on May 4 that he did not think more legislation was necessary to protect IGs, saying, “I think we have plenty of laws to protect inspectors general.”
On Monday, Grassley sent a letter to Trump asking the President to explain his firing of Linick by June 1. The Iowa Republican sent a similar letter after former Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson’s dismissal.
He also told CNN he will “try to get to the bottom” of what happened with Linick’s removal and said “it’s not difficult for me to take on any President. That’s my reputation, Republican or Democrat.”
An aide to Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement Monday about Trump’s firing of the Linick, joining Grassley, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as the only Republicans to comment publicly on the matter.
“The State Department Inspector General performs essential oversight of the Department, so it raises questions when one is removed. We are looking into the matter,” Leslie Shedd, a spokeswoman for McCaul, said.
On Saturday, Romney called the firings “a threat to accountable democracy.”
“The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power,” he tweeted.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju contributed reporting