Washington CNN  — 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended his push to have his department’s inspector general fired, saying he “should have done it some time ago,” but refused to explain his reasoning for recommending President Donald Trump remove Steve Linick from his job.

“The President has the unilateral right to choose who he wants to be his inspector general at every agency in the federal government,” Pompeo said in remarks to reporters Wednesday at the State Department. “They are presidentially confirmed positions, and those persons just like all of us serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States. In this case, I recommended to the President that Steve Linick be terminated. I frankly should have done it some time ago.”

When pressed to explain why he lobbied to have the independent watchdog fired, Pompeo refused to elaborate, saying only that he would “share with the appropriate people.” He also said claims that he pushed for Linick’s ouster in retaliation for the watchdog’s probes into some of his activities and his use of the office are “patently false.”

The Secretary then launched an extraordinary personal attack on a senior Democratic senator who has pushed for greater oversight of Pompeo and his State Department.

Though he hadn’t been asked about the senator, Pompeo suddenly accused Robert Menendez of New Jersey of leaking stories to the press and then pointed out the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was “criminally prosecuted, Case Number 15-155,” apparently listing the case number by memory.

‘It’s all crazy stuff’

“You see these stories that have been leaked to you all, right? To the press. This is all coming through the office of Senator Menendez,” Pompeo said. “I don’t get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted, Case Number 15-155, in New Jersey Federal District Court. A man for whom his Senate colleagues, bipartisan, said, basically that he was taking bribes. That’s—that’s not someone who I look to for ethics guidance.”

The Justice Department dropped the charges against Menendez in January 2018 after he had been acquitted on seven of 18 of them.

Menendez and the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, New York Rep. Eliot L. Engel, are investigating whether Linick’s dismissal was meant to shield the secretary from oversight. They have given the administration until May 22 to turn over all records related to the firing. When asked if he would cooperate with Congress on that inquiry, Pompeo did not answer, launching his attack on Menendez instead.

The New Jersey Democrat responded to Pompeo’s broadside Wednesday, saying it wasn’t surprising the secretary was lashing out.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Menendez said. “The President, at Secretary Pompeo’s request, fired the State Department’s Inspector General for no apparent reason at the same time the Inspector General was investigating the Secretary. Secretary Pompeo now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions.”

“Not surprisingly, he has lashed out at me and others conducting congressional oversight. The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful,” Menendez continued. “The Secretary should focus on answering questions and getting his story straight as to why he wanted to target IG Linick.”

Engel said in a statement that it is “disappointing that Secretary Pompeo didn’t seize the opportunity to clear up the questions surrounding his recommendation to fire Inspector General Linick, or to commit to fulfilling the records request I made with Senator Menendez. Our investigation will go forward and we still hope for the Secretary’s cooperation.”

On Wednesday, Pompeo ridiculed the investigations Linick was reportedly conducting, conflating at least two of the probes by saying they were launched because “someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner, it’s all crazy stuff.”

Pompeo spoke a day after it emerged that Linick may have been looking into private, elite dinners the secretary has held in the sumptuous ceremonial rooms at the State Department.

Lawmakers have begun to look closely at these “Madison Dinners,” as Pompeo called them, and two sources tell CNN that Linick had recently asked the State Department protocol office about the semi-regular events.

NBC News was first to report that concerns have been raised about the dinners.

Linick, whose office is charged with investigating waste, fraud and abuse at the State Department, has also been investigating allegations that Pompeo used a political appointee for personal tasks such as dog walking and making restaurant reservations.

The IG was also reportedly looking into whether Pompeo broke rules when he declared an emergency last year that allowed the administration to fast track an $8 billion arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their war in Yemen over congressional objections.

Pompeo had refused to sit for an interview with the inspector general’s office as part of that investigation, a congressional aide told CNN.

Pompeo dismissed the idea that he fired Linick in an attempt to retaliate. “I didn’t know what was being investigated so I couldn’t retaliate,” he said.

“I mean it’s all just crazy, it’s all just crazy stuff,” Pompeo said. “I didn’t have access to that information, so I couldn’t possibly have retaliated, it would have been impossible.” He added that there “is one exception. I was asked a series of questions, I responded to those questions with respect to a particular investigation that was sometime earlier this year as best I can recall.”

The New York Times has reported that Pompeo submitted written answers in the weapons sales probe.

Trump said Monday he fired Linick at Pompeo’s urging and made clear he did so at least in part for political reasons. “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.

The inspector general’s office is meant to function as an independent watchdog.

‘Damaging our democracy’

Linick is the fourth inspector general that Trump has fired since the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him of impeachment charges in February, in what critics see as an attack on independent oversight of his administration. Prior to Linick’s firing, Trump had ousted the inspectors general for the intelligence community, the defense department and health and human services.

The firings are “damaging to our democracy,” said Nick Burns, the former under secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s administration. “These Inspector Generals were created to ensure that government employees at every level from the cabinet secretary to the lowest ranking official are accountable to the law, to Congress and to the American public.

“It would be understandable if an administration decided, with demonstrated cause, to let go of one such official,” said Burns, who is now teaching international politics at Harvard University, but four “is a pattern that illustrates the Trump administration does not intend to honor the purpose of the law. It is the least transparent administration in memory.”

Pompeo on Monday said that he asked Trump to remove 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.”

Asked Wednesday to explain what how Linick was undermining the department, Pompeo said he couldn’t discuss “personnel matters” and added that, “I can’t talk … I can’t give you specificity.”

CNN’s Michael Conte and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.