Congressional Democrats say the State Department watchdog fired by President Donald Trump last week was investigating possible impropriety in a massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia last year, adding new questions to the watchdog’s abrupt dismissal.
Democrats said Monday that ousted Inspector General Steve Linick was probing how the State Department pushed through a $7 billion Saudi arms sale over congressional objections. Democrats previously suggested the dismissal might have been tied to Linick's investigation of allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may have improperly ordered staff to run personal errands for him.
Neither the White House nor the State Department has provided specific reasons for Linick’s late Friday dismissal, which comes amid broader concerns over Trump’s removal of numerous inspectors general at various executive branch departments. Trump has said he had lost confidence in those fired but has not given specific reasons, which lawmakers from both parties have criticized.
In his first public comments on the matter, Pompeo told The Washington Post in an interview on Monday that he had recommended to Trump that Linick be removed because he was “undermining” the State Department's mission, but he would not address specifics except to say it was not in retaliation for any investigation.
“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 told the Post, adding that he did not know if Linick's office had been looking into possible impropriety on his part.
A senior State Department official close to Pompeo, Under Secretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, told the Post that confidence in Linick had begun to wane after leaks to the media last year about an IG investigation into political retaliation against career employees by political appointees. When released, that report was critical of several political appointees for having acted against career officials deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump.
Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was troubled that Linick was sacked before the completion of the Saudi investigation. Engel had called for that probe after Pompeo in May 2019 invoked a rarely used provision in federal law to bypass a congressional review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“His office was investigating — at my request -- Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” said Engel, D-N.Y. “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."
He called for the State Department to turn over records related to Linick's firing that he and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, had demanded on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Trump ally Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has pushed in the past for the protection of inspectors general, renewed a call for the White House to provide full explanations for the reasons behind the dismissals of Linick and the earlier ouster of intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson.
“An expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the IG Reform Act,” Grassley said in a letter to Trump. “This is in large part because Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of unfitness, wrongdoing, or failure to perform the duties of the office.”
Trump's firing of Linick is effective in 30 days. Over the weekend, congressional aides had suggested that it may have been prompted by a probe into allegations that the secretary had ordered a staffer to pick up take-out food, collect dry cleaning for him and his wife, and care for their dog. While problematic, such allegations are unlikely to result in any kind of severe consequence against Pompeo if proved correct.
A finding of impropriety in the Saudi arms sales could, however, be more serious.
Engel and other congressional Democrats were appalled when Pompeo in May 2019 notified Congress of the decision to use an emergency loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to move ahead with sales of $7 billion in precision guided munitions, other bombs and ammunition and aircraft maintenance support to Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, without lawmakers’ approval.
The law requires Congress to be notified of potential arms sales, giving the body the opportunity to block the sale. But the law also allows the president to waive that review process by declaring an emergency that requires the sale be made “in the national security interests of the United States.”
In his notification, Pompeo said he had made the determination “that an emergency exists which requires the immediate sale” of the weapons “in order to deter further the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region.”
It came as the administration actively courted close ties with Saudi Arabia over congressional objections, notably following the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based columnist for The Washington Post, by Saudi agents in October 2018.
There was precedent for using the emergency exemption for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. President Ronald Reagan invoked it in the 1980s, and both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush used it for sales before the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War.
Pompeo has been silent about congressional criticism. But on Sunday, in apparent defiance, Pompeo posted a photo on his personal Twitter account of himself and a new puppy that he and his wife, Susan, have adopted.