Trump’s Hand-Picked State Department Watchdog Quits Less Than 3 Months Into the Job
The latest high-profile departure underscores the turmoil at Foggy Bottom, and officials fear it will weaken an important watchdog already under fire from top Trump officials.
President Donald Trump abruptly fired the U.S. State Department’s inspector general in May, following the official’s probes into allegations of malfeasance and mismanagement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration appointees. Now, less than three months into his new post, the acting inspector general who replaced him has stepped down, too, officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
Stephen Akard, a close associate of Vice President Mike Pence, was installed as acting head of the Office of Inspector General, or OIG, shortly after Trump fired Steve Linick at the recommendation of Pompeo in May.
Akard will depart his post for a job in the private sector and be replaced temporarily by his deputy, Diana Shaw, a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy. The Washington Post and CNN first reported Akard’s departure.
To some diplomats, Akard’s abrupt exit underscores heightened levels of politicization, turmoil, and dysfunction in the State Department during the Trump era, beginning under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and continuing under Pompeo. Some officials said it has also had a chilling effect on employees’ willingness to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing or abuse.
“The system is broken. The work of IG has been made so political that it’s no longer safe for anyone to come forward, especially with allegations against political appointees,” said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is clear that the leadership of the department is sidestepping the watchdog and is not looking out for the best interest of the department, but instead a select few at the top.”
The State Department inspector general’s office has drawn criticism from senior administration officials for allegedly leaking sensitive information to the media and for pursuing investigations into allegations that Pompeo and his wife, Susan Pompeo, were misusing State Department resources for personal gain.
In recent years, the OIG has served as a rare check on mismanagement by career diplomats in the Trump era, issuing damning reports on such issues as the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol and Bureau of International Organization Affairs. The OIG was also conducting an investigation into Pompeo’s decision to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite strong opposition from a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers.
Linick’s sacking, and Akard’s appointment to replace him, raised concerns among former diplomats and Democratic lawmakers of the growing politicization of the State Department in the Trump era. In an interview with lawmakers in June, Linick said a senior political appointee attempted to “bully” him into halting his investigation into the justification for the arms sale to Saudi Arabia over congressional objections. During the interview, Linick denied allegations he leaked investigations to the press.
Akard, who previously worked with Pence when he was governor of Indiana, is one of the highest-profile political appointees to depart the State Department in recent months, and his departure has added to the perception of an inspector general’s office in turmoil, according to several State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. While acting watchdog, Akard simultaneously headed the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, which oversees foreign diplomatic missions based in the United States. His dual-hatted role raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest among some former diplomats and Democratic lawmakers; by keeping both roles, Akard was in effect overseeing himself.
When asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson said: “Ambassador Stephen J. Akard, the State Department’s Acting Inspector General and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, has announced he is returning to the private sector after years of public service. We appreciate his dedication to the Department and to our country. The Deputy Inspector General, Diana R. Shaw, will become the new Acting Inspector General.”
The OIG has also become a flash point of political tensions between the administration and Democrats in Congress. Top Democrats on committees that oversee the State Department have accused the administration of stonewalling them on the justification for Linick’s firing. On Aug. 3, top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform issued subpoenas for four senior political appointees at the State Department over Linick’s abrupt firing in May.
“The Administration continues to cover up the real reasons for Mr. Linick’s firing by stonewalling the Committees’ investigation and refusing to engage in good faith,” the Democrats—Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York—said in a joint statement. “That stonewalling has made today’s subpoenas necessary, and the Committees will continue to pursue this investigation to uncover the truth that the American people deserve.”
At the time, Pompeo justified Linick’s firing with vague criticisms of his job performance. “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,” he told the Washington Post in an interview in May. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”
Facing questioning from Democratic lawmakers during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 30, Pompeo said Linick was fired due to how he handled a leak investigation.
“He didn’t comply with the instructions about how we felt that leak needed to be investigated so that we could have an independent investigator do it. And then he wasn’t candid about that process either,” Pompeo said.
Update, Aug. 5 2020: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.
Correction, Aug. 6, 2020: This article originally incorrectly stated the role of the State Department Office of Foreign Missions. It has been corrected.