Trump’s Decision to Fire the State Department’s Watchdog Draws Bipartisan Concern on Capitol Hill
Some Republicans say the president failed to provide an adequate justification to Congress.
Some Republican lawmakers are joining Democrats in expressing concern over President Trump’s firing of the State Department inspector general late on Friday night, saying they would like to see a more detailed justification for the move.
President Trump informed Congress via a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that he is going to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, effective in 30 days. Linick has held the position since 2013, during which time he led high-profile investigations into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server use, the Benghazi scandal during the Obama administration, and the hiring freeze and alleged personnel retaliation at the department under the Trump administration. Democrats expressed outrage over the move as this is part of a recent string of IG oustings, and the top House and Senate Foreign Affairs Democrats launched an investigation. Republicans had more mixed reactions, but several joined Democrats in expressing concern over the decision.
“In 2008, I co-authored with former Sens. [Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.,] and [Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.,] the ‘Inspector General Reform Act (P.L. 110-40),’ which among other provisions requires the president to notify Congress 30 days prior to the removal of an inspector general along with the reasons for the removal,” tweeted Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Saturday. “The president has not provided the kind of justification for the removal of IG Linick required by this law.”
While not naming Linick specifically, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized the president on Saturday for his recent IG firings. “The firings of multiple inspectors general is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” he tweeted. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a long-time whistleblower and transparency advocate, released a statement on Saturday in which he stressed the importance of inspectors general to promote accountability in government.
“Linick led the State Dept. IG’s office after the position had been intentionally left vacant for the first four years of the Obama administration,” Grassley said. “Although he 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. As I’ve said before, Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG’s removal. A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.”
On the other hand, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said on CNN on Sunday he understood the president’s reasoning for the firing, but didn’t give specifics. “I am an advocate for inspectors general,” Johnson said. “They need to retain their independence within the agencies, so they can do inspections and investigations and provide that to their leadership, but primarily to the president.”
Johnson, who is the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman, added that “not all inspectors general are created equal” since “in our oversight work, we have already had two inspectors general resign because of some of the corruption we were uncovering.”
Upon launching the investigation into Linick’s firing, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to the White House on Saturday that “reports indicate that Secretary Pompeo personally made the recommendation to fire Mr. Linick... because the inspector general had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself.” A White House official told The Washington Post on Saturday that Pompeo made the recommendation and Trump agreed.
On Sunday, NBC reported that Linick “was looking into whether [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo made a staffer walk his dog, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations for Pompeo and his wife, according to two congressional officials.” Other outlets have reported similarly.
The State Department did not respond to Government Executive for comment.
Then on Monday, Engel told The Washington Post there might be another reason for the firing. “His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” Engel said. Politico reported shortly after that Pompeo allegedly refused to sit for an interview with the IG’s office.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Monday Pompeo confirmed that he asked the president to fire Linick, but said it was not political retaliation because he did not know about what Linick was investigating.
“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,” Pompeo said. “The kinds of activities he’s supposed to undertake to make us better, to improve us.”
According to the State IG’s website, the office began a review of the administration's use of the Arms Export Control Act emergency authorities in October 2019, and it started its annual audit of the State Department financial statements in April, among many other investigations.
Ambassador Stephen Akard, State Department Office of Foreign Missions director, will replace Linick as acting IG. He is the former director of international development at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and a “close associate,” of Vice President Mike Pence, The New York Times reported.
Earlier on Friday, the president announced his intent to nominate Eric Soskin, a Justice Department senior trial counsel, to be the Transportation Department Inspector General. Howard "Skip" Elliott, currently the administrator of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, will be the acting IG.
Deputy Inspector General Mitch Behm, who was serving as the acting IG since February 1, following former Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III’s retirement, returned to his role as Deputy Inspector General, a Transportation IG spokesperson told Government Executive.
Behm was slated to be a member of the Pandemic Accountability Response Committee, which is one of the oversight bodies charged with overseeing the administration’s spending on the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear if Behm will remain on the committee or if Elliott will replace him.
As the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington noted in February, the selection of a Transportation IG is a tricky situation because Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a close ally of the president. Donald Sherman, CREW deputy director, pointed out on Sunday that the Transportation IG office is currently investigating if Chao used her position to curry favor for McConnell.
Before the news broke about the IG shake-ups, the House passed a $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that would provide $145.5 million across various IG offices to support their pandemic-related oversight work, only allow the president to fire IGs in limited circumstances and require the president to explain to Congress why he or she has not filled IG vacancies if they exceed 210 days.