Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended his decision to recommend the dismissal of State Department inspector general Steve Linick in a hotly anticipated press conference on Wednesday morning.
Claims that he sought Linick’s dismissal in retaliation for a pair of investigations, one of which implicated Pompeo personally, are “patently false,” Pompeo said — because he didn’t know anything about the investigations.
“I’ve seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. It’s all just crazy. It’s all crazy stuff,” he told reporters at the State Department. “I didn’t have access to that information, so I couldn’t possibly have retaliated.”
“I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general’s office,” Pompeo said, “with one exception.” The secretary said he provided written answers to questions related to the inspector general’s probe into an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
But Pompeo declined to provide a specific reason why he recommended Linick’s removal, saying only that he “should have done it some time ago.”
In a Friday letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President Trump said he fired Linick because he no longer had his “fullest confidence.”
That’s insufficient grounds for removing an inspector general, who is supposed to retain independence, Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, told NPR on Tuesday.
“It’s troubling because when Congress created the inspector general program and amended it to strengthen the independence of inspectors general, they indicated in Senate and House committee reports that an inspector general could be fired by the president but that their expectation was that it would only be done for performance problems or malfeasance,” Shaub said.
Pompeo also declined to answer directly whether the department would meet a Friday deadline for providing information on the dismissal to Congress. Instead, he attacked Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accusing him of leaking information on the investigations to the press and pointing to his 2015 indictment on corruption charges. (Menendez was later acquitted.)
“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 50 dash 155.”
At issue are two separate investigations, one into allegations that Pompeo had an aide perform personal errands for him, and another into a controversial emergency declaration that the Trump administration used to sell $8 billion in arms to Riyadh over the objections of Congress.
Linick, who was fired last week by President Donald Trump on Pompeo’s recommendation, was nearly finished with the Saudi probe, according to a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide, and had briefed State Department leadership on his findings sometime in the last few months. He is the latest in a string of inspectors general to be dismissed by Trump as part of what critics have described as a loyalty purge. Linick also played a small role in Trump’s impeachment hearings.
The dismissal drew swift criticism from Democrats, but only a handful of Republicans, including frequent Trump critic Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has also called for more information on the firing without expressly criticizing the move.
“Although [Linick] failed to fully evaluate the State Department’s role in advancing the debunked Russian collusion investigation, those shortcomings do not waive the President’s responsibility to provide details to Congress when removing an IG,” Grassley said in a statement. “A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.”
Menendez, along with House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., has launched an investigation into Linick’s dismissal. The two lawmakers are demanding that the State Department turn over all records related to the firing by Friday.
Pelosi, D-Calif., on Monday called for a “detailed and substantial justification” for Linick’s removal within 30 days.