Report

Fired State Watchdog Confirms Ongoing Investigation Into Pompeo and His Wife

In an interview with Congress, Linick says he was looking into private taxpayer-funded dinners at the department, among other probes.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to press.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press briefing at the State Department in Washington on May 20.

The State Department inspector general fired by U.S. President Donald Trump last month has confirmed that at the time of his dismissal his office was investigating alleged misuse of department resources by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan Pompeo, according to a transcript released by Democratic lawmakers.

The newly released interview is certain to ramp up public pressure on Pompeo to explain his recommendation to Trump that he sack Steve Linick last month.

In the interview with lawmakers, Linick confirmed that the probe into Pompeo and his wife was one of five investigations into alleged wrongdoing that his office was conducting at the time of his firing. On one of the investigations into the department’s $7 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year over congressional objections, Linick said a senior political appointee attempted to “bully” him into halting his work. 

Linick also said he was concerned about giving senior department officials information on an investigation into political retaliation into career State Department employees, for fear that his investigators themselves could be retaliated against. “These were individuals who were involved in the investigation of the political retaliation matter in the Office of the Secretary. And I was concerned—or I could imagine the department using information in that report against them,” he said. 

The 253-page transcript released on Wednesday sheds new light on how the department’s independent watchdog sought to do its job under a president who has railed against the so-called “deep state” and derided career diplomats dragged into the center of his impeachment investigation. Linick was the fourth federal inspector general to be fired in the course of two months by the president, prompting criticism from many lawmakers—including one of Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill. 

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa announced on June 4 that he would block several senior Trump administration nominees from advancing through Senate confirmation “until the White House provides adequate reasons for the termination of the Intelligence Community and State Department inspectors general.”

Current U.S. law states that a president may remove an inspector general at will, but such a decision requires notifying Congress about the reasons for such a removal 30 days in advance. Trump said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he no longer had confidence in Linick but did not elaborate. Linick was removed from his post before the 30 days was up. In his testimony, he said he was “shocked” by the announcement and “had no indication whatsoever” that the secretary was planning on recommending that Trump fire him. 

Pompeo has been vague on the specific reasons for Linick’s firing but has denied that it was a retaliatory move and accused Linick’s office of leaking to the press. “Steve Linick was a bad actor in the inspector general office here,” Pompeo told reporters in a press conference on Wednesday. “He didn’t take on the mission of the State Department to make us better. That’s what inspector generals are supposed to do. They work for the agency head—that’s me—and they are supposed to deliver and help make that organization better. It’s not what Mr. Linick did.”

He claimed Linick didn’t do what he was asked to dowhen pressed to investigate the leak to reporters of a very politically sensitive document designed to destroy the career of a professional State Department official.” Pompeo said the leak could have come from Linick’s office, but the department is still looking into the matter.

An investigation from the Defense Department inspector general in March found no evidence that his office leaked information to the press regarding a Daily Beast story in September 2019 on an inspector general report on the State Department’s Iran envoy, Brian Hook. Linick rebutted allegations that he leaked to the press in his interview with lawmakers, which took place last week.

Trump fired Linick on May 15 at the recommendation of Pompeo. Linick sat down for closed-door testimony with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers after three committees launched a joint investigation into his firing—the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Other investigations Linick said he had opened before he was fired included a review of the International Women of Courage Award and one into the State Department’s chief of protocol office. Foreign Policy reported in March 2019 that the State Department had revoked an International Women of Courage Award to a Finnish investigative journalist after department officials flagged social media posts she made about Trump. 

The secretary of state and his wife also hosted private taxpayer-funded dinners at the department with political heavyweights, including deep-pocketed Republican campaign donors, according to an NBC News investigation in May. Fourteen percent of those who attended some two dozen of such dinners were foreign diplomats, according to documents on the dinners obtained by NBC News. 

Pompeo has criticized the Democratic-led investigation into the matter as a personal and politicized attack. This is just part and parcel of the attacks on President Trump and now on myself related to us trying to make sure that this government was functioning in a way that was designed to assist the American people, he told Fox News on May 31. These attacks have become very personal to me, to now come after my wife.

He has also said he had no way of knowing about Linick’s work in advance in rebutting accusations from Democratic lawmakers that he fired Linick in retaliation for opening an investigation into his and his wife’s alleged wrongdoing.

In his testimony, Linick said he gave other senior State Department officials close to Pompeo advance warning of the investigation, however. “I wanted to make sure everybody was aware so that they wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I didn’t tell them not to tell anybody, including Secretary Pompeo, about them. … From my point of view, I just wanted to make sure that folks on the Seventh Floor knew what we were doing before they just got a document request.”

Linick’s temporary replacement, Stephen Akard, is a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence who is also the head of the Office of Foreign Missions at the State Department. As acting inspector general, Akard now oversees the separate office he runs, raising concerns among some department officials and lawmakers about the independence of the inspector general’s office.

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

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