Lawmakers cry foul over firing of State inspector general

Senate Republicans demand explanation for abrupt ouster of latest IG that Trump has recently fired

Steve Linick departs from a briefing on Ukraine on Capitol Hill on Oct. 2, 2019.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Steve Linick departs from a briefing on Ukraine on Capitol Hill on Oct. 2, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 18, 2020 at 7:31pm

President Donald Trump received criticism from members of his own party Monday for his weekend firing of the State Department's independent watchdog, with Senate Republicans demanding an explanation for the abrupt ouster of the latest inspector general removed from his post in recent weeks.  

The IG, Steve Linick, was reportedly examining whistleblower allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had staffers run personal errands for him and his family. Linick also was investigating Pompeo’s decision to skip a mandatory congressional review of $8 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Both chambers voted last year to oppose the sale to the Saudis, but Trump ultimately vetoed the bill.

Pompeo has said he requested Linick's removal, but said he did not know he was under investigation by the IG’s office.

John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate's No. 2 Republican,  told reporters Congress "deserves an explanation" about the firing.

"These are important positions," Thune said. "They are watchdogs for these agencies and they have an important role to play and I think it's important for us to be a part of the oversight process and I think we need and deserve a full explanation."

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah criticized the firing of Linick and other agency IGs as “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”

And Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a longtime watchdog advocate, said he was unsatisfied with Trump’s explanation that the president lost confidence in Linick. In a letter Monday to Trump, the Iowa Republican stressed the "unique role" of inspectors general, who report to both the president and Congress.

"To guard them from unwarranted political attacks from all sides, including from officials that they are duty bound to critique, Congress provided IGs with some additional protections. One of those is the requirement that the president provide notice and explanation to Congress 30 days before the removal of an IG,” Grassley wrote.

Another Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said it's "very clear" the president must provide that 30-day notification. "It is not a sufficient justification to say that he simply lost confidence," she said. 

Trump notified Congress of Linick's firing on Friday.

But Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch of Idaho, in a statement to CQ Roll Call, defended a president’s statutory prerogative to hire and fire inspectors general.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York said he had reason to believe the IG was removed not only because he was investigating Pompeo’s possible abuse of taxpayer resources but also because he was close to concluding a probe into the reasons behind last year’s controversial weapons sale to Saudi Arabia.

“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing,” Engel said in a statement. “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.”

Pompeo told the Washington Post on Monday he wasn’t aware he was under investigation when he requested Linick’s firing.

“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,” said Pompeo, a former three-term Kansas lawmaker. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”

Grassley called on Trump to provide a “detailed reasoning” for Linick’s removal no later than June 1. He also reminded Trump he is still awaiting a response to an April letter from senators about the firing of the intelligence community IG, Michael Atkinson, after Atkinson informed Congress of an official whistleblower complaint at the center of Trump's impeachment.

Linick is the fifth inspector general Trump has fired in recent months.

“The president has just fired a parade of independent watchdogs and given no legitimate explanation for their dismissals,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Monday on the Senate floor.

The New York Democrat said he wasn't satisfied with Republicans' response to the firings.

“What are my Republican colleagues going to do about it? Nothing, it seems," Schumer said. "When history looks back on this chapter, on President Trump’s purge of independent watchdogs during a time of national crisis, it will not give credit to Senate Republicans who let the president off the hook.”

Speaking at the White House, Trump attempted to play down Linick's removal and the allegations against Pompeo, a trusted adviser.

“I never heard of him [Linick]. But I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike,” the president said. “Do you mean that he [Pompeo] is under investigation because he had someone walk his dog from the government? I don’t know. I don’t think it sounds like that important.”

Menendez announced he intended to file legislation that would only allow for the termination of IGs for cause such as malfeasance, misuse of funds or abuse of authority. The bill would also require that all acting IGs be career officials, rather than political appointees, and would order agency heads to recuse themselves from any actions related to investigations into their own conduct.

“With colleagues on both sides of the aisle expressing serious concerns with the president’s purging of independent Inspectors General, I hope that many will join me in pushing this effort forward,” Menendez said in a statement.

John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.