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Trump Escalates War on Government Watchdogs

The shock firing of the State Department’s top watchdog is raising fears that diplomats won’t be protected against political retaliation.

U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs the U.S. Capitol October 2, 2019 in Washington, DC.
U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs the U.S. Capitol in in Washington on Oct. 2, 2019. Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump continued his post-impeachment purge of the U.S. government’s top independent watchdogs, telling Congress on Friday night that he was sacking the State Department inspector general.

Steve Linick, who has been the top State Department watchdog since 2013, was fired after launching an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself, according to Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, raising immediate questions to lawmakers about whether the decision was legal or not. He will be replaced in the interim by a political appointee at the State Department close to Vice President Mike Pence. 

With Linick’s ouster, some State Department officials felt Pompeo had effectively kneecapped the power and independence of the Office of Inspector General (OIG). “We are all pissed,” said one State Department official, who questioned how the office could maintain its political independence and impartiality in future investigations. “Without someone nonpolitical, what hope is there for us to go to OIG and use this tool? How can I feel comfortable calling even the anonymous tip line to report waste fraud and abuse?”

“It seems like a lot of people are getting fired for doing their job,” another official said. “It just makes me afraid.”

The move also infuriated Democratic lawmakers sitting on the committee that oversees the State Department. “This firing is the outrageous act of a President trying to protect one of his most loyal supporters, the Secretary of State, from accountability,” Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “I have learned that the Office of the Inspector General had opened an investigation into Secretary Pompeo. Mr. Linick’s firing amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation.”

A State Department spokesperson confirmed to Foreign Policy that Linick was fired but did not give any indications or justification for his firing. His replacement, Stephen Akard, served as a foreign service officer from 1997 to 2005. He is an ally of Pence and currently holds the position of State Department director of the Office of Foreign Missions. 

The State Department watchdog was looking into Pompeo’s “misuse of a political appointee at the Department to perform personal tasks” for himself and his wife, a Democratic congressional aide told Foreign Policy. The State Department did not respond to additional requests for comment or confirm whether Pompeo was the subject of an inspector general investigation.

Linick’s dismissal represents the latest move by Trump to fire federal watchdogs deemed insufficiently loyal to the administration. In early April, the president sacked the inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community, who drew the president’s ire after receiving a whistleblower complaint that kick-started the impeachment process against the president for unduly pressuring the Ukrainian government into investigating his Democratic rival. Days later, he fired the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, who was tasked with overseeing the administration’s $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package on a federal panel established by Congress. He then removed a senior watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, shortly after her office issued an unflattering report on how ill-prepared the United States was in its coronavirus response. 

“That failure to pushback means the president feels untethered,” said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit whistleblower protection group. “The president doesn’t have to provide any added explanation when he removes an [inspector general] because he doesn’t feel the pressure when he does.”

Linick’s firing was met with a mixture of anger, shock, and fear from the State Department’s diplomatic corps, according to four State Department officials. All expressed fear that the department would be put through a new wave of politicization just months after the diplomatic corps was dragged into a nationwide scandal with the impeachment trial.

“[We] rely on offices like this to protect us,” one State Department official said. “That’s clearly not happening.” 

Inspectors general play a critical behind-the-scenes role in independently investigating fraud, waste, and abuse in the government and offering an independent check on politicized misconduct within the government. Since the start of the Trump administration, Linick’s office has churned out a series of damning reports outlining mismanagement and political retaliation by Trump appointees at the State Department. 

Linick last year recommended disciplinary action against U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook after he allegedly removed a career official from her post based on ethnic discrimination and questions over her personal political views. The department disagreed with Linick’s findings, saying the inspector general’s report ignored “compelling evidence” Hook made the decision to remove Sahar Nowrouzzadeh from her post “prior to any of the non-merit factors being brought to his attention.”

Linick also played a small role in the House’s Democratic-led impeachment investigation, delivering to lawmakers State Department documents on a smear campaign that Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, waged against the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine before she was sacked. 

Linick, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, had a reputation among some within the department for being “tough and eager to find wrongdoing but generally fair,” according to one senior State Department official. Others saw the watchdog as being too cautious in calling out retaliation against career officials in the Trump administration, however. Ian Moss, a retired Marine who was a State Department lawyer on the Guantánamo Bay prison closure and later a human rights official at the National Security Council, said Linick’s office suppressed his complaint about political targeting that included emails between former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and another State Department official discussing him. 

This is not the first time that the Pompeo family has been the subject of scrutiny for improper use of U.S. government resources. Susan Pompeo, the wife of then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, first raised eyebrows when the Washington Post reported in 2018 that she used office space on the CIA’s seventh floor and had agency officials assist her with briefings, agendas, and travel overseas. The Pompeo family also stayed at the CIA’s training facility in Virginia, known as “the Farm,” during Christmas 2017. After the Pompeos arrived in Foggy Bottom, a whistleblower complaint to Capitol Hill charged that the secretary and his family treated the diplomatic security like “Uber Eats with guns,” running errands such as getting Chinese food and picking up Pompeo’s adult son from Washington’s Union Station and driving him home.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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