Trump removes State Department watchdog said to be probing Mike Pompeo

A 2016 photo shows Steve Linick (left) testifying at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump continued his purge of inspectors-general late on Friday (May 15), moving to oust Steve Linick, who had served in that post at the State Department since 2013, and replacing him with an ambassador with close ties to Vice=President Mike Pence.

Linick, who was named by president Barack Obama to lead the office of the inspector-general at the State Department, will be replaced by Ambassador Stephen Akard, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, the State Department said in a statement on Friday night.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was obtained by The New York Times, Trump wrote that "it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors-General".

"That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector-General," the president added.

The decision to remove Linick, first reported Friday night by Politico, is the latest in a purge of inspectors-general whom Trump has deemed insufficiently loyal to his administration, upending the traditional independence of the internal watchdog agencies whose missions are to conduct oversight of the nation's sprawling bureaucracy.

Democratic representative Eliot L Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called the decision to remove Linick an "outrageous act" meant to protect Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from accountability.

In his statement, Engel said that he had learned that Linick's office had opened an investigation into Pompeo.

Engel said that "Mr Linick's firing amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation."

Engel did not offer any more details, but a Democratic aide said that Linick was looking into whether Pompeo had misused a political appointee at the State Department to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife.

A spokeswoman for Pompeo did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment about the accusation.

The removals of the inspectors-general - and their replacements by allies of the president's - are part of an aggressive move by Trump and his top aides against who he considers to be "deep state" officials in many key agencies and who he believes are opposed to his agenda.

That effort accelerated in the weeks after the president was acquitted in a Senate impeachment trial. Trump viewed the inquiry into his actions related to Ukraine as a "coup" orchestrated by career officials and Democratic politicians determined to bring his presidency to an early conclusion.

On May 1, even as the coronavirus pandemic continued to ravage the country, Trump moved to oust Christi A. Grimm, the principal deputy inspector-general for the Department of Health and Human Services, whose office had issued a report revealing the dire state of the nation's response to the pathogen.

A month earlier, the president ousted Michael K. Atkinson, the inspector-general of the intelligence community, telling the leaders of two congressional committees that he had lost confidence in him. Atkinson had infuriated the president by insisting on telling Congress about the whistleblower complaint that prompted the impeachment inquiry.

The president also took steps to remove Glenn A. Fine, who has been acting inspector-general for the Defence Department since before Trump took office, so that he could not be installed as the leader of an oversight panel intended to keep tabs on how the Trump administration spends trillions of dollars in pandemic relief approved by Congress.

Under law, the administration must notify Congress 30 days before formally terminating an inspector general. Linick is expected to leave his post then.

Pelosi, who led the impeachment effort in the House, condemned the move late Friday to replace Linick.

"The late-night, weekend firing of State Department I-G Steve Linick is an acceleration of the President's dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people," she said, in a statement on Twitter.

Democratic representative. Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said on Twitter that the move by the White House was a "potential cover up" by Trump and Pompeo, and that it could result in a congressional inquiry.

"Congress & @HouseForeign Oversight Subcommittee will hold the Trump admin accountable for any illegal actions and corrupt conduct," Castro tweeted.

Linick was a bit player in the impeachment inquiry, briefly drawing attention to himself at the height of the investigation into Trump's actions. In October, he hand-delivered a packet of information to congressional investigators, saying he thought it might help answer whether the president pressured Ukraine to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

In the end, the roughly 40 pages of material turned out to be largely inconsequential: a record of contacts between Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, and Ukrainian prosecutors, as well as accounts of Ukrainian law enforcement proceedings.

At least two investigations by Linick's office have caused friction with senior political appointees at the State Department.

In November, the office said it had found that appointees at the agency, when it was led by secretary of state Rex Tillerson, had retaliated against an Iranian American career civil servant, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, because of her ethnicity and a perception that she held political views different from those of top Trump officials. Brian H. Hook, then the head of the office of policy planning, where Nowrouzzadeh worked, was scrutinised in that inquiry. Hook is now the special representative for Iran and works closely with Pompeo.

In August, Linick's office found that two political appointees in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs - the assistant secretary Kevin E. Moley and his senior adviser Mari Stull - had harassed career employees. Pompeo did not fire Moley, who announced in October he would retire later that year.

Employees of the State Department's inspector general's office have viewed Linick as a competent, nonpartisan leader.

Akard, by contrast, has been a controversial figure since his nomination for a senior State Department job when Tillerson was secretary. The White House had pushed Akard for the job of director-general of the Foreign Service, a top management position that has traditionally gone to respected career officials with decades of experience.

A close associate of Pence's, Akard had served as the director of international development at the Indiana Economic Development Corp, in the state where Pence once was governor. Members of Congress heard the intense grumblings of longtime State Department employees and signaled to the White House in 2018 that he would not be confirmed; even senior Republicans had opposed the nomination.

In 2019, Akard was confirmed as the department's director of the office of foreign missions, a job with the rank of ambassador that top career officials do not consider meaningful compared with the director-general post.

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