WASHINGTON — Democrats demanded on Saturday that the White House hand over all records related to President Donald Trump's latest firing of a federal watchdog, this time at the State Department, and they suggested Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was responsible, in what “may be an illegal act of retaliation.”
"We unalterably oppose the politically-motivated firing of inspectors general and the President's gutting of these critical positions,'' the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a letter to the administration announcing their investigation.
Trump announced late Friday that he was firing the inspector general, Steve Linick, an Obama administration appointee whose office was critical of what it saw as political bias in the State Department's management. The ouster was one more move by the president against independent executive branch watchdogs who have found fault with his administration.
New York Rep. Eliot Engel and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez sent letters to the White House, the State Department and the inspector general’s office asking that administration officials preserve all records related to Linick’s dismissal and provide them to the committees by this coming Friday. They promised to “look deeply into this matter" and said they would seek to interview White House officials. They said they “trust that the White House will cooperate fully with our investigation."
A senior department official said Trump removed Linick from his job on Friday but gave no reason for the action. In a letter to Congress, Trump said Linick, who had held the job since 2013, no longer had his full confidence and that his removal would take effect in 30 days. Trump did not mention Linick by name in his letter.
Democrats soon cried foul. Engel suggested Linick was fired in part in retaliation for opening an unspecified investigation into Pompeo.
Engel offered no details. Two congressional aides said it involved allegations that Pompeo may have improperly treated staff. Linick’s office has issued several reports critical of the department’s handling of personnel matters during the Trump administration, including accusing some political appointees of retaliating against career officials.
Engel and Menendez said it was ”their understanding" that Pompeo recommended that Linick be fired because the watchdog was investigating “wrongdoing” by the Cabinet officer. They gave no specifics, but said such a move “may be an illegal act of retaliation.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Linick was “punished for honorably performing his duty to protect the Constitution and our national security.” She said Trump ”must cease his pattern of reprisal and retaliation against the public servants who are working to keep Americans safe, particularly during this time of global emergency.”
Linick, whose office also took issue with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she served as America's top diplomat, played a minor role in the Ukraine impeachment investigation into Trump.
In October, Linick turned over documents to House investigators that he had received from State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a close Pompeo associate, which contained information from debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election.
In the Senate, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa on Saturday defended the role of the inspector general in the federal government and noted that Congress requires written reasons to justify removal. "A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress,” Grassley said in a statement that did not mention Trump or Pompeo.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, cited both the president and a possible investigation of the secretary of state in his broadside against the firing. “I hope Republicans will join us in standing up for taxpayers and getting to the bottom of this. There must be a bipartisan commitment to upholding our system of checks and balances and ensuring accountability and oversight at the highest levels,” Reed said in a statement.
Linick will replaced by Stephen Akard, a former career foreign service officer who has close ties to Vice President Mike Pence, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Akard currently runs the department's Office of Foreign Missions. He had been nominated to be the director general of the foreign service but withdrew after objections he wasn't experienced enough.
The lawmakers' request for information from the White House includes any evaluations of Linick's job performance and any assessment of Akard's job qualifications.
Linick, a former assistant U.S. attorney in California and Virginia, had overseen inspector general reports that were highly critical of the department's management policies during the Trump administration. His office had criticized several Trump appointees for their treatment of career staff for apparently being insufficiently supportive of Trump and his policies.
Under Linick, the State Department's inspector general office was also critical of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's hiring freeze and attempts to streamline the agency by slashing its funding and personnel.
Trump has been taking aim lately at inspectors general.
In April, he fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, for his role in the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.
Then Trump removed Glenn Fine as acting inspector general at the Defense Department. The move stripped him of his post as chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is among those overseeing the vast economic relief law pass in response to the coronavirus.
During a White House briefing on COVID-19, Trump questioned the independence of an inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services over a report that said there was a shortage of supplies and testing at hospitals. Trump has since moved to replace the HHS official, Christi A. Grimm. She is a career person who has held the position in an acting capacity, but now Trump has nominated a permanent replacement.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.