State IG was investigating Trump emergency arms sales to Saudis, Pompeo's use of staff to run errands when fired: Sources

Two senior Democratic lawmakers are now investigating Steve Linick's firing.

May 18, 2020, 6:55 PM

The State Department Inspector General who was fired by President Donald Trump late Friday was investigating his administration's use of emergency powers to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia despite congressional opposition, according to a senior Democratic lawmaker.

Inspector General Steve Linick is the latest federal watchdog removed by Trump and the latest impeachment player who may have faced some form of presidential retaliation. Pompeo recommended his dismissal and supported the president's decision, a senior State Department official told ABC News Friday.

The watchdog office was also looking into whether Pompeo used staff to run personal errands, according to a congressional aide.

While it's not clear why the president decided to remove Linick, his removal amid at least two investigations into the administration's handling of the agency has spurred outrage that he was sacked for doing his oversight job. Two senior Democratic lawmakers are now investigating his firing.

"I was happy to do it. Mike requested that I do it. He should have done it a long time ago," Trump told reporters at the White House Monday. "I didn't know about an investigation. But this is what you get with the Democrats."

Pompeo denied it was an act of retaliation, telling the Washington Post in an interview that he did not know about the reported investigation into his conduct either. The top U.S. diplomat added that Linick "wasn't performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to" and was "trying to undermine what it was that we were trying to do," without offering specifics.

PHOTO: U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs after briefing House and Senate Intelligence committees at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019.
U.S. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick departs after briefing House and Senate Intelligence committees at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, FILE

The State Department has not responded to questions from ABC News. A spokesperson for the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) told ABC News it cannot confirm or deny the existence of any specific investigation.

In a statement to ABC News, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said that the OIG's investigation into the Saudi weapons sale "may be another reason for Mr. Linick's firing."

In May 2019, Pompeo declared an emergency so that the administration could bypass congressional approval to send $8 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates amid their ongoing war in neighboring Yemen. Particularly after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, Republican and Democrat lawmakers have opposed such arms sales and any U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where American-provided bombs have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, according to the United Nations.

Congress has the authority to approve or reject arms sales, but the State Department issued a legal justification to bypass that process, citing an urgent threat from Iran and the Houthi rebels in Yemen that Tehran supports, although many of the arms would not be transferred for months or even years.

Engel said in the statement that the State Department OIG "was investigating -- at my request -- Trump's phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia. We don't have the full picture yet, but it's troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed," according to Engel.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump listens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the Cabinet Room of the White House, Oct. 21, 2019, in Washington.
President Donald Trump listens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the Cabinet Room of the White House, Oct. 21, 2019, in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has joined Engel in demanding the administration turn over documents related to Linick's firing by Friday as part of their own investigation into his removal. The State Department has previously ignored similar requests, even when the House issued subpoenas for its impeachment investigation.

In addition to the arms sales, the OIG was investigating whether Pompeo used a political appointee at the department walk his family dog Sherman, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations, a congressional aide told ABC News on Monday.

Engel first said Friday night that the OIG was investigating Pompeo's conduct when Linick was fired without offering specifics -- adding that his firing "amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation."

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump said only that he "no longer" had "the fullest confidence" in Linick's ability to help the administration "promote the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of Federal programs and activities." The president is entitled to remove inspectors general, although they are confirmed to their roles by the Senate.

But Trump defended Pompeo's reported use of a staffer to run personal errands, saying Monday, "I would rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes because maybe his wife isn't there."

Under Linick, the inspector general's office had repeatedly found fault with the Trump administration's handling of the State Department, especially the treatment of career staff and its efforts to "redesign" its workforce, including through a damaging hiring freeze.

Details about one of those investigations were leaked to the Daily Beast in November. Under Secretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao -- a top Pompeo lieutenant and long-time friend -- told the Washington Post that senior State Department leaders believe Linick was responsible for that leak and accused him of a "pattern of unauthorized disclosures, or leaks."

Appointed to the role in 2013 by President Barack Obama, Linick is a career government lawyer who served as a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush and assistant U.S. attorney in California and Virginia under President Bill Clinton.

PHOTO: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department on April 29, 2020, in Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department on April 29, 2020, in Washington.
Pool/AFP via Getty Images

He also played a minor role in the impeachment process. As ABC News was first to report in October, he requested an urgent meeting with senior lawmakers during the probe to turn over documents his office obtained.

Those papers, later confirmed to come largely from Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, showed what one senior State Department official called a "disinformation campaign" that smeared U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and appeared to have led to her firing. They also included false claims about former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, whose board Hunter sat on. Giuliani had turned the documents, which were based on his interviews with a fired Ukrainian prosecutor accused of corruption, over to Pompeo, who passed them down and said the department would investigate.

Trump has fired or demoted other top U.S. officials involved in the impeachment probe, including the intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, who alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that ultimately led to impeachment -- an oversight function required of Atkinson by law. Trump also fired U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, both of whom testified in the impeachment hearings.

It's not the first time Pompeo has faced questions about his behavior. Last fall, Menendez called for an investigation into Pompeo's use of his State Department plane to travel to Kansas, where the secretary made four trips in 2019. While three of those included official events, Menendez charged that Pompeo may be violating the Hatch Act by using government resources to start "laying the groundwork for" a 2020 Senate run. Pompeo has said he is not running for the open seat, despite pressure from Republicans to do so.

CNN reported last July that congressional Democrats were investigating Pompeo's use of his Diplomatic Security detail to run errands like picking up take-out food and the dog Sherman without the secretary.

As fourth in the presidential line of succession, the Secretary of State is always escorted by a security detail.

On Saturday, he and his family were driven by Diplomatic Security to get a new puppy. Pennsylvania state police confirmed to ABC News that they helped Diplomatic Security escort the Pompeo's to a residence in Lancaster County for a trip that lasted no more than two hours. The next day, Pompeo posted on his personal Twitter account photos of his new dog Mercer.

This report was featured in the Tuesday, May 19, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.