Democrats are seeking interviews with at least seven key Trump administration officials in an expansion of their investigation into the removal of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
Linick, who was fired by Trump earlier this month at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recommendation, was investigating the State Department’s use of an emergency authority in May 2019 to bypass Congress and sell $8 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers condemned the sale for what some called a “fake” emergency, but legislation passed by both chambers to reject the sales was vetoed by the president. Without enough votes to override his veto, the sales went through, although several of them will take months and even years to be complete.
The agency watchdog was also investigating whether Pompeo used a political appointee to run personal errands for him and his wife, according to a congressional aide.
“We are aware that Mr. Linick’s office was working on at least two investigations that touched directly on Secretary Pompeo’s actions at the time that Secretary Pompeo recommended that the President fire him,” Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement.
Pompeo said last week that he was unaware of any investigations into his actions, but that he did submit answers in writing for one particular investigation, without specifying which.
“If Secretary Pompeo pushed for Mr. Linick’s dismissal to cover up his own misconduct, that would constitute an egregious abuse of power and a clear attempt to avoid accountability,” the lawmakers added.
Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees, along with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have requested voluntary June interviews with a handful of senior State Department officials, including Under Secretary for Management Brian Bulatao; Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, whose office oversees arms sales and transfers; chief of staff in the Office of Legislative Affairs Charles Faulkner; Pompeo’s senior advisor Toni Porter; deputy assistant secretary for defense trade Mike Miller; and Marik String, who was a deputy assistant secretary under Cooper and is now the department’s acting legal adviser.
"Given your involvement in these matters, we believe that you may have information relevant to specific matter under investigation," Democrats wrote in the letters to witnesses obtained by ABC News.
The State Department, in a response to Engel, expressed willingness to allow Bulatao, a top Pompeo deputy and longtime friend, to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee but raised “concerns” about making the other officials available without more information about their relevance to or involvement in Linick’s removal, the department said in its response to Democrats obtained by ABC News.
Trump recently told reporters he was “happy to” remove Linick at Pompeo’s request. “He should have done it a long time ago,” he said.
Pompeo provided a new reason for firing Linick during an interview with Fox News Thursday, accusing Linick of “investigating policies he simply didn’t like” and his office of leaking.
It’s unclear what policies Pompeo was referring to. He didn’t provide more details or evidence for his statements.
“This didn't have anything to do with retaliation,” he said. “This was about an IG that was attempting to undermine the mission of the United States Department of State. That's unacceptable.”
With Linick set to leave his post in mid-June, Democrats have asked his office, along with the State Department and White House, for records and documents related to his ongoing investigations and deliberations about his removal. A Democratic aide said the White House and State Department did not respond to the requests.
In recent weeks, Trump has sidelined or sought to replace at least five inspectors general across the administration — and in some cases, replace them with officials continuing to hold positions in the agencies they are meant to independently monitor.
Immediately after Linick’s firing, Stephen Akard, a former Mike Pence adviser and the current Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, became the acting inspector general, a move Democrats claimed was an inherent conflict-of-interest.