WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged President Donald Trump to fire the official responsible for fighting waste and fraud in his department, a White House official said Saturday (May 16), a recommendation certain to come under scrutiny after congressional Democrats opened an investigation into what they said "may be an act of illegal retaliation".
Trump told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late on Friday (May 15) that he was ousting Steve Linick, who led the office of the inspector general at the State Department, and replacing him with an ambassador with close ties to Vice President Mike Pence.
Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, immediately called the decision to remove Linick an "outrageous act" meant to protect Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from accountability.
By Saturday, Engel and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had opened an investigation into Linick's removal, citing a pattern of "politically motivated firing of inspectors general".
In letters to the White House, the State Department and Linick, the two Democrats wrote that they believed Linick had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Pompeo and that Pompeo had responded by recommending that Linick be fired. The lawmakers did not provide any more details, but a Democratic aide said that Linick had been looking into whether Pompeo improperly used a political appointee at the State Department to perform personal tasks for him and his wife.
A White House official, speaking on the condition on anonymity, confirmed on Saturday that Pompeo had recommended Linick's removal and said that Trump had agreed. A spokesman for Pompeo did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
"Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation," the lawmakers wrote.
Since starting his current job in April 2018, Pompeo has come under growing public scrutiny for what critics say is his use of the State Department's resources for personal endeavours. Menendez has called for Pompeo to explain how he can justify frequent trips to Kansas, his adopted home state, using State Department funds and aircraft.
He has brought his wife, Susan Pompeo, on many trips abroad, telling others she is a "force multiplier" for him. And CNN reported last year that congressional officials were looking at potential misuse of diplomatic security personnel for personal errands. That did not result in the opening of a formal inquiry.
In their letters, Engel and Menendez requested that the administration turn over records and information related to the firing of Linick as well as "records of all IG investigations involving the Office of the Secretary that were open, pending, or incomplete at the time of Mr Linick's firing."
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the few congressional Republicans who have been publicly critical of the president, denounced Linick's dismissal on Saturday evening.
"The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose," Romney said on Twitter. "It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power."
Few Republicans have commented on the move. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who in the past has made a point of defending inspectors general, said in a statement that "a general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress".
Trump's decision to remove Linick is the latest in a series of ousters aimed at inspectors general who the president and his allies believe are opposed to his agenda, upending the traditional independence of the internal watchdog agencies.
On May 1, even as the coronavirus pandemic continued to ravage the country, Trump moved to oust Christi Grimm, 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 coronavirus outbreak. He has also taken steps to remove two other inspectors general.
A month earlier, the president ousted Michael Atkinson, inspector general for the intelligence community, who had infuriated the president by insisting on telling lawmakers about a whistleblower complaint that ultimately prompted impeachment proceedings.
The president also took steps to remove Glenn Fine, who has been acting inspector general for the Defense 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.
In his letter informing Pelosi about Linick's removal, which 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.
Under law, the administration must notify Congress 30 days before formally terminating an inspector general. Linick is expected to leave his post after that period.