US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks the press at the State Department in Washington, DC, on May 20, 2020.
Pompeo defends Trump in firing of inspector general
02:42 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s push to fire the inspector general reportedly looking into his actions at the oldest US Cabinet agency has refocused scrutiny of the top US diplomat’s transparency record after just over two years in the job.

Ethics watchdogs say Pompeo, who came to prominence in Congress through his dogged pursuit of Hillary Clinton’s State Department after the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, has not practiced what he preached before taking the secretary of state job.

Pompeo refused to go into broader detail about his push to fire his agency’s independent watchdog – the latest instance of the top US diplomat shirking questions, as he did for much of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, or offering incomplete or changing answers, as in the aftermath of the deadly strike on an Iranian commander earlier this year.

“He has a long history in the job of eschewing holding himself to account, to accountability, to thinking that he and his decisions are somehow above scrutiny,” said John Kirby, a former State Department spokesperson under President Barack Obama and a CNN analyst.

The timing of Inspector General Steve Linick’s firing is “incredibly problematic,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a non-partisan ethics watchdog group. While it’s not clear yet why Pompeo asked Trump to remove the independent watchdog – and the secretary refused to explain in a Wednesday press briefing – Evers said, “I think we can have confidence that the President and Secretary Pompeo were not trying to get greater transparency or accountability.”

Linick is the fourth independent watchdog Trump has fired since the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him in February of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“It is the least transparent administration in memory,” said Nicholas Burns, a retired career foreign service officer who served as the third highest-ranked official at the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush. He noted that the role was “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.”

CNN has reached out to the State Department for comment.

Firing the watchdog

Evers noted that “the issues that the inspector general was reportedly investigating go back a long way,” adding that problems with Pompeo and transparency “at the State Department have been pretty much continuous since he arrived” in April 2018.

The office led by Linick was purportedly investigating whether the Trump administration illegally pushed through Saudi arms sales in circumvention of Congress by declaring an emergency that enabled them to sidestep the law and also whether the top US diplomat had misused staff for personal errands.

Pompeo told The Washington Post that he recommended Linick’s removal because the independent watchdog was “undermining” the department and wasn’t performing in a way that the top US diplomat wanted him to. He did not go into details about what specifically displeased him about Linick’s job performance. Pompeo disputed the idea that his recommendation to fire Linick was retaliatory, claiming he was unaware that he was under investigation by the Office of Inspector General.

On Wednesday, Pompeo again refused to offer specific details to explain Linick’s ouster, but noted he “should have done it some time ago.”

Sen. Robert Menendez, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Representative Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, launched an investigation into Linick’s firing, giving the administration until May 22 to turn over all records related to the removal. Pompeo did not respond when asked directly on Wednesday if he intends to comply.

“There have obviously been a number of IGs that have been removed but this one, I really do think is kind of the four-alarm fire for Congress that if they don’t step up in a more significant way than they have, I really just don’t know how the IG system can effectively function,” Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight told CNN.

“Unfortunately it seems to be throughout the administration that they don’t understand the importance of Congress as a co-equal branch,” she noted. “And if the removal of Linick is proper, there shouldn’t be anything to hide.”

Fighting congressional oversight

The former Kansas lawmaker has repeatedly clashed with Congress over their requests for explanations and demands to conduct oversight, with lawmakers repeatedly complaining that the secretary has slow-walked legally mandated documents and witnesses.

“The State Department has effectively blocked all forms of accountability when it comes to congressional oversight,” said Evers of American Oversight. “They refused to comply with any of the impeachment inquiry, and according to Chairman Engel, have largely ignored all other oversight requests.”

Pompeo’s State Department largely stonewalled House Democrats during their impeachment inquiry into Trump. Attempts to block department officials from hearings with congressional investigators led most to testify under subpoena. The top US diplomat attempted to obfuscate his role in the matter that led to the impeachment of the 45th president, largely dodging and dismissing questions about his knowledge of key events in the Ukraine saga and his presence during a pivotal phone call between the President and Ukraine’s new leader.

Retired US ambassador and career foreign service officer James Melville said that the administration’s treatment of Congress is “a horrible example for all of us who love our democracy.”

“The role of Congress in oversight and accountability is essential to the smooth functioning of our government and our system,” he said. “And the contempt that Pompeo shows or Trump shows by not responding to subpoenas, by, in Pompeo’s case by not appearing to testify and defend his record when it’s legitimately called into question, just undermines the law and democracy. And it’s just terrible,” Melville told CNN.

Shifting policy explanations

The top US diplomat has offered shifting or vague public explanations to justify policy decisions and some of his boldest assertions about US adversaries, most recently walking back accusations that the coronavirus pandemic began in a Chinese lab.

While the administration has ratcheted up tensions with China with its accusation, it came close to triggering a major conflict with Iran after the deadly strike against Iranian Commander Qasem Soleimani, which Pompeo offered a variety of explanations to justify.

Pompeo said the killing of the Iranian general was in response to an imminent threat to Americans, even as diplomatic security in the region reported no immediate danger. He later said they didn’t know “precisely when” or “precisely where” the imminent attacks were being plotted. A classified briefing to Congress from Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, CIA Director Gina Haspel and then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire left lawmakers on both sides of the aisle frustrated and dissatisfied.

“There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack. Generality – stuff that you read in the newspaper. I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said following a January 8 briefing. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said after the briefing that it was the “worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue” during his nine years in the Senate.

“I walk away unsatisfied on the key questions that I went into this briefing with,” said Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It makes me concerned that we cannot have clarity on those key questions – imminency, target, all of those things.”

In an appearance before the House in late February, Pompeo was again pressed on the matter, with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia, citing Pompeo’s own comments about an imminent threat and noting the fact that a White House report sent to Congress outlining the legal rationale for the operation did not include the phrase.

“Your own report directly contradicts what you and the President told the American people over and over. You said there were imminent threats to American lives. And that’s not true. And when the administration was constrained by the law to tell the truth, you abandoned the talking points,” she added.

Pompeo pushed back on Spanberger’s assertion that administration officials failed to provide lawmakers with any evidence of an imminent threat in classified briefings. “We absolutely did,” he said.

Saudi Arabia

Pompeo has also reportedly stymied oversight within his own department, refusing to sit for an interview as part of the now-fired inspector general’s investigation into the administration’s emergency declaration to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia – a move strongly opposed by both parties in Congress. According to the New York Times, the top US diplomat answered written questions on the probe. On Wednesday, Pompeo said he had answered written questions “with respect to a particular investigation,” but did not explicitly say which one.

“I don’t know the scope. I don’t know the nature of that investigation, other than what I would have seen from the nature of the questions that I was presented. I did what was right,” he said.

Pompeo’s transparency on Saudi Arabia – a political priority for Trump – has been an issue before, particularly surrounding the events and aftermath of the Kingdom’s murder of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi.

Following Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October 2018, Pompeo used the secrecy surrounding matters of intelligence to largely divert discussion around US conclusions on the matter.

In December 2018, pressed about the CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi’s death, the top US diplomat claimed to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer there was “no direct evidence” linking him to the journalist’s murder, but added, “I can’t comment on intelligence matters or CIA conclusions. I didn’t do it when I was director; I’m not going to do it now.”

Secret stops and political ambitions

The secretary’s transparency about his travel overseas and domestically has also come into question.

Amid speculation about Pompeo’s political future, meetings with political donors or important domestic constituencies have been excluded from the manifest that is given to traveling press who are charged with tracking his work. In London in Dec