When he was fired shortly before 8 p.m. on a Friday night, Steve Linick was simply told that President Trump “had decided to exercise his power to remove you.”
WASHINGTON (CN) — In a transcript released Wednesday, a State Department watchdog ousted amid probes into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged misuse of agency funds told Congress he has not seen a good reason for his removal.
“Well, I’m not going to speculate, and I’m going to leave that conclusion to all of you since you’re doing the fact finding, but I can tell you though that I’ve been given no valid reason that would justify my removal,” outgoing State Department Inspector General Steve Linick told lawmakers in an interview conducted last week. “And the explanations I’ve heard so far in the press are either unfounded or misplaced.”
The House Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees, as well as two subcommittees and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a 251-page transcript on Wednesday of an interview with Linick, whom President Donald Trump fired on May 15, citing a lack of confidence.
At the time of his firing, Linick’s office was investigating the Trump administration’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, as well as allegations that Pompeo used department staff to carry out personal errands. Linick told lawmakers last week his office had requested an interview with Pompeo as part of the Saudi arms review and that Pompeo had delivered responses to questions in writing.
The office had also asked for documents concerning the allegations that Pompeo had misused agency funds, Linick told the committees.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, Pompeo said he had not reviewed the transcript the committees released, but called Linick a “bad actor.”
“As I’ve said before, my mistake was letting Mr. Linick stay here as long as he did,” Pompeo told reporters when asked about the fired watchdog. “He continued to undermine what it is the State Department’s mission is aimed at achieving.”
Appointed to the position in 2013 by President Barack Obama, Linick told lawmakers last week that senior staffers at the State Department did not seem to understand the role of inspectors general, the independent watchdogs that probe misconduct at federal agencies.
Linick specifically accused Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao of attempting to “bully” him, particularly over a leak investigation concerning an inspector general report on political retaliation in the State Department.
Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy with the Project on Government Oversight, said Linick’s testimony was not necessarily surprising, but does raise red flags about how officials in the Trump administration view inspectors general.
“Any time we see instances like this where an inspector general is saying that he was being bullied by political leadership at an agency into doing a job that was more flattering of the administration, it should raise real concerns for anybody who cares about independent oversight and accountability of the federal government,” Hempowicz said in an interview.
When he was fired shortly before 8 p.m. on a Friday night, Linick said Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun simply told him that Trump “had decided to exercise his power to remove you.” When Linick pressed for more information, Biegun repeated the phrase, according to the transcript.
Linick is part of a line of inspectors general Trump has removed while in office. Linick told the committees he has heard people within the inspector general community “express some fear” as Trump ousts more of the independent watchdogs.
Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said while it is normal for relationships between agency officials and inspectors general to be contentious at times, Linick’s interview reveals a deeper opposition to the independent watchdogs that seems to permeate the Trump administration.
“It sort of sheds light on what is a pattern and practice of hostility to independent oversight from the president to the secretary of state on down to Mr. Bulatao,” Sherman said in an interview.
A spokesman for Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has been critical of Trump’s conduct toward inspectors general, said Grassley’s office is “still in the fact finding phase.” Grassley has placed a hold on two Trump executive branch nominees until he gets an explanation from the White House on the firings of Linick and Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson.
“The White House knows that it needs to provide written explanations to Congress, and we are making progress on that,” Grassley spokesman George Hartmann said in an email.