On Heels of Predecessor, State Department Watchdog Bows Out

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laughs at the Al Shati Palace in Abu Dhabi‎, United Arab Emirates, on July 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The senior watchdog of the State Department, Stephen Akard, quit his post without explanation Wednesday, a development that comes mere weeks after his own predecessor was unceremoniously fired by an openly distrustful President Donald Trump. 

Akard was a career foreign service officer for eight years before Vice President Mike Pence tapped him in October to lead the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions.

The appointment was controversial for House and Senate Democrats given Akard’s closeness to Pence; he served under the former Indiana governor when they both worked on the state’s Economic Development Corporation.

Career diplomats, too, were critical of Akard’s leadership at State, arguing that his short time at the department was not sufficient to put him in a position with considerable ambassadorial powers.

Ultimately, Akard became acting inspector general in May. But this only came to pass because President Trump had axed Steve Linick, the department’s inspector general, who, at the time of his firing was conducting an ethics probe into potential misuse of taxpayer funds by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife. 

The dual roles held by Akard were contentious for Democrats who felt he could not inherently conduct proper or ethical oversight of State if he was also leading its departments or maintaining close relationships with members of the president’s innermost circle. 

In a June letter to lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee, following a tense hearing, Akard tried to assuage concerns by insisting he had “stepped away” from his previous duties in foreign missions to take on those of an inspector general. 

“During my tenure as acting inspector general, OIG will continue its audits, inspections, evaluations and investigations and I will execute my duties in accordance with the laws, policies and standards governing my position and OIG’s work,” Akard wrote.

A clear explanation for his resignation has not yet been offered. Citing anonymous officials familiar with what unfolded inside of the department, however, multiple news outlets are reporting that the onetime acting IG will return to the private sector in Indiana. 

Akard will be replaced by Diana Shaw, the deputy inspector general.

A representative for the State Department did not immediately return request for comment.

This latest shakeup magnifies the high rate of turnover of inspectors general overseeing the Trump administration’s activities.

Akard’s predecessor, Steve Linick, was only in the role for a short time before being fired. When he was terminated, he was actively spearheading a probe into the administration’s highly unusual emergency declaration under the Arms Control Export Act to expedite weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan to the tune of $8.1 billion. 

Trump and Secretary Pompeo said the weapons would help the U.S. and its allies counter Iranian aggression in the Middle East and preserve national security. Pompeo underlined that it was a “one-time” deal.

But Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike were in a frenzy over Trump’s sidestepping of Congress. The “emergency” sale was more than just bad optics — it also unilaterally ended a freeze on weapon sales to allies in the Persian Gulf established by the senior most Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, Robert Menendez.

The New Jersey senator started the freeze a year earlier — and with Republican support — to protest Saudi Arabia’s backing of the war in Yemen.

Before Linick was ousted, it was Michael Atkinson who was fired. Atkinson was responsible for providing Congress with the whistleblower complaint of Trump’s July 25, 2019, call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. That complaint was the catalyst for Trump’s impeachment by the House.

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