Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Focus of State Department inspector general's firing shifts from Secretary Mike Pompeo's personal errands to controversial $8-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia

Mike Pompeo

Donald Trump's firing of the State Department inspector general, according to early reports, was driven by an investigation into Secretary Mike Pompeo's propensity to have publicly paid government employees run his personal errands. That seemed like a relatively minor deal.

Now we learn that Pompeo refused to cooperate with a watchdog probe into an $8-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. That could be a very big deal, and it might be the next major scandal tied to the Trump administration. From a report by Zachary Cohen at CNN:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sit for an interview with the State Department inspector general's office as part of its probe into the administration's move to bypass Congress and expedite last year's $8-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia by declaring an emergency, a congressional aide told CNN Monday.

Neither the State Department nor the office of the inspector general responded to CNN's request for comment on the matter. The allegation Pompeo declined to cooperate with the investigation came after House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Eliot Engel, claimed the State Department inspector general fired by President Donald Trump on Friday, Steve Linick, had nearly completed an investigation into Pompeo's controversial decision to fast-track the same arms sale.

"I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick's firing. His office 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," Engel, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement to CNN Monday.

For those who remember the Republican obsession with Hillary Clinton's emails while she was secretary of state might be curious to see how seriously the GOP takes the Pompeo tempest now that it involves one of heir own. Writes Zachary Cohen:

Last May, the Trump administration declared an emergency to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to various countries -- including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- citing the need to deter what it called "the malign influence" of Iran throughout the Middle East.

"These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said in a statement at the time, which put the value of the sales at $8.1 billion.

But the move drew bipartisan condemnation, with lawmakers decrying the precedent it sets, questioning the administration's claims of an emergency and raising the issue of Saudi Arabia's human rights record and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Now, Engel says Pompeo might have removed the federal watchdog who was looking into his handling of the arms sale. Linick's Saudi Arabia investigation was first reported by The Washington Post.

The revelation will increase scrutiny of Trump's firing of Linick on Friday evening -- the latest in a series of dismissals of independent government watchdogs tasked with oversight of the President's administration. A senior State Department official previously confirmed to CNN that Pompeo recommended Linick be removed, but they did not know the reasons why.

Lawmakers appear to be taking the matter seriously:

Democrats on both the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees are interested in learning more about Linick's investigations into Pompeo, and Engel emphasized the importance of cooperation from the administration in his statement Monday.

"The administration should comply with the probe I launched with Senator Menendez and turn over all the records requested from the Department by Friday," he said, a reference to Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Trump's latest late-night firing of an inspector general as the media's attention was focused on the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 89,000 Americans, prompted immediate bipartisan criticism from lawmakers including Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a longtime proponent of inspectors general.

"As I've said before, Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG's removal. A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress," Grassley said on Saturday, referring to the justification for Linick's firing cited by Trump.

Grassley told CNN's Manu Raju on May 4 that he did not think more legislation was necessary to protect IGs, saying, "I think we have plenty of laws to protect inspectors general."

On Monday, Grassley sent a letter to Trump asking the President to explain his firing of Linick by June 1. The Iowa Republican sent a similar letter after former Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson's dismissal.

He also told CNN he will "try to get to the bottom" of what happened with Linick's removal and said "it's not difficult for me to take on any President. That's my reputation, Republican or Democrat."

Trump addressed the Linick firing at a White House briefing on Monday:

Speaking at the White House Monday, Trump repeatedly said he fired Linick -- whom the President claimed not to know -- at Pompeo's request.

"I said, 'Who appointed him?' And they say, 'President Obama.' I said, 'Look, I will terminate him.' I don't know what's going on other than that. You would have to ask Mike Pompeo. They did ask me to do it, and I did it," Trump said.

Greg Sargent, of The Washington Post, has an op-ed piece titled "Trump’s purge just got much more corrupt. Here’s what’s coming next":

In their demand for an investigation, committee Democrats argued that the administration had failed to provide adequate justification for the emergency declaration. They noted that one core claim — that the threat from Iran required it — appeared to be a “pretext,” since the House had not been told by Pompeo of the need for the sale in a briefing on Iran only days before.

The Democrats also raised questions about potential conflicts of interest surrounding a former State Department official who may have been obligated to recuse himself of involvement in the sale, given his previous role as a lobbyist for Raytheon Co., which made many weapons involved in the transfer.

To reiterate, we don’t know what the IG found on the arms sales, and it’s possible there’s no connection between that and his firing. But at a minimum, the firing of Linick, coming after the removal of numerous other IGs, already shows Trump’s efforts to purge the government of oversight and accountability on his administration are getting much worse.

And the timing here demands a full accounting of what the IG found on the arms sales and any possible connection to his firing.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who joined Menendez in advocating for Senate efforts to block the arms sales, pointed to the administration’s “coziness” with the Saudis, which has included a refusal to hold the royal family accountable over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and asked why Trump won’t use these arms sales to exercise “leverage to get them to change their behavior.”

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