Democrats to interview ousted State Department watchdog

WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of three House and Senate committees will interview former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick on Wednesday as part of an investigation by House Democrats into his abrupt firing by President Donald Trump.

Linick will speak to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to two congressional aides working on the investigation who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.

Democrats announced Friday that they are expanding their probe into Linick's firing earlier this month with a series of interviews. The investigation is part of a larger effort by Democrats and some Republicans to find out more about Trump’s recent moves to sideline several independent government watchdogs.

The Democrats plan to interview multiple officials in the administration who may have more information about Linick’s dismissal on May 15, including whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recommended the firing for retaliatory reasons. Pompeo has denied Linick’s firing was retaliatory but has not given specific reasons for his dismissal.

The investigation is being led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republicans on those panels will also be invited to question Linick and other witnesses.

“If Secretary Pompeo pushed for Mr. Linick’s dismissal to cover up his own misconduct, that would constitute an egregious abuse of power and a clear attempt to avoid accountability,” the Democrats said in a joint statement Friday.

The committees said they will release transcripts shortly after each interview.

It’s unclear whether Linick will come to Capitol Hill in person or appear virtually for the transcribed interviews. The House will be out of session over the coming week as lawmakers work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee has asked several other State Department officials to sit for interviews in the probe, including Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, Pompeo’s executive secretary Lisa Kenna and acting State Department legal adviser Marik String, according to the congressional aides.

Democrats and some Republicans have pushed the administration for more answers about the firings, but the White House has provided few, simply stating the dismissals were well within Trump’s authority.

Pompeo said after the firing that he had been concerned about the inspector general’s work for some time and that he regretted not calling for his dismissal earlier. He said he recommended to Trump that Linick be terminated.

Pompeo told reporters that he was unaware of any investigation into allegations that he may have mistreated staffers by instructing them to run personal errands for him and his wife such as walking his dog and picking up dry cleaning and takeout food. Thus, Pompeo said, the move could not have been retaliatory.

Pompeo did acknowledge that he was aware of an investigation into his decision last year to bypass congressional objections to approve a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia because he had answered written questions about it posed by Linick’s office. He maintained he did not know the scope or scale of the investigation.

Engel and Menendez have been demanding answers and documents from the State Department and Pompeo personally for months on a variety of topics that goes far beyond Linick’s dismissal.

After complaining for more than a year that Pompeo and his staff have either refused to respond or provided only perfunctory answers to questions posed on personnel and policy matters, the two Democrats and their Democratic committee colleagues have teamed up to try to force a complete explanation from Pompeo and the White House as to why Trump fired Linick.

Engel and Menendez earlier demanded that administration officials preserve and turn over all records related to Linick’s dismissal. They said they have received no information so far.

Linick is one of several inspectors general whom Trump has removed from office, sparking outrage among Democrats who say the administration is undermining government accountability. Linick was an Obama administration appointee whose office was critical of what it saw as political bias in the State Department’s current management but had also taken issue with Democratic appointees.

He played a small role in Trump’s impeachment last year. In October, Linick turned over documents to House investigators that he had received from a close Pompeo associate that contained information from debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. election. Democrats were probing Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats.

Linick is the second inspector general to be fired who was involved with the impeachment process. Michael Atkinson, the former inspector general for the intelligence community, triggered the impeachment probe when he alerted Congress about a whistleblower complaint that described a call between Trump and Ukraine’s president last summer. Trump fired Atkinson in April, saying he had lost confidence in him.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said the White House is legally required to provide more answers to Congress about the firings and gave Trump a deadline to give them. But in a letter to Grassley this week, the administration offered no new details about why they were let go.

The response from White House counsel Pat Cipollone said that Trump has the authority to remove inspectors general, that he appropriately alerted Congress and that he selected qualified officials as replacements.

The president also moved to replace the chief watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who testified that her office was moving ahead with new reports and audits on the department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic despite Trump’s public criticism of her.

In addition, Trump demoted acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, effectively removing him as head of a special board to oversee auditing of the coronavirus economic relief package. Fine later resigned.