WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday defiantly defended the firing of an inspector general who had investigated his conduct, and he issued a broadside against a Democratic senator to counter criticism that he had used diplomatic resources for his personal advantage.
In seething comments to reporters, Pompeo said he wished he had recommended earlier that President Donald Trump dismiss the State Department’s inspector general, Steve A. Linick. He called it “patently false” that his request sought to retaliate for inquiries into his potential misuse of government resources or the Trump administration’s decision to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over Congress’s objections.
But he refused to explain why he wanted Linick fired, as Trump ordered Friday night. Linick has been locked out of his office, despite a law mandating a 30-day waiting period for Congress to raise objections.
The investigations have fueled concerns that Pompeo has used the State Department to further his political ambitions, including a possible future presidential campaign. During the past two years, Pompeo has privately met with political donors and supporters while on official State Department travel, and used speeches and interviews in Iowa, New Hampshire and other important election states to advance foreign policy.
Pompeo dismissed allegations of improper acts during his leadership, and he spoke of separate investigations by the inspector general in one breath in an effort to ridicule them.
“I’ve seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner,” he said in response to journalists’ questions at the State Department. “It’s all just crazy. It’s all crazy stuff.”
He lashed out against Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has opened an inquiry into Linick’s firing after learning of the inspector general’s investigations into whether Pompeo or his wife, Susan, used State Department resources for their political or personal gain.
“I don’t get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted,” Pompeo said, referring to 2015 federal bribery charges that were brought, but led to no conviction, against Menendez.
Menendez was acquitted of some of the corruption charges; the rest were dismissed by the Trump administration’s own Justice Department in 2018. He is one of several lawmakers in Congress — including the Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa — who have raised concerns over the last week about Linick’s firing.
“The facts speak for themselves,” Menendez said in a response Wednesday. “Secretary Pompeo now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions.”
Menendez said the attack against congressional oversight was not surprising. “The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful,” he said.
Trump had previously fired or demoted three other inspectors general this spring, and the dismissal of Linick led Democrats in the House and Senate to begin an inquiry into the ouster.
On Tuesday morning, Menendez reached out to Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, for details on a series of lavish dinners at the State Department that the Pompeos have hosted for hundreds of guests, including American business leaders and conservative political officials. Menendez had been aware for months of the dinners and sent a private letter to Biegun demanding to know whether they were legal, how they were funded and who had attended.
The Foreign Affairs Manual, which outlines State Department regulations, prohibits the “use, or allowing use, of U.S. government funds, property or other resources for unofficial proposes or for private benefit.”
Congressional officials have said Linick, who has served as the State Department inspector general since 2013, was examining several areas of policy and potential misuse of government resources that had raised concerns.
In one, officials said, Linick’s office had opened an investigation into whether the Pompeo family had assigned a State Department employee to work on issues unrelated to diplomatic business. Part of that inquiry has examined whether government aides were told to do personal chores, including picking up dry cleaning and walking the family dog, Sherman.
A focus of that inquiry is the role of Toni Porter, a longtime aide to Pompeo, who is on the State Department payroll as a senior adviser and who helped set up domestic travel and events inside the United States for Pompeo and his wife.
Porter worked for Pompeo when he was a Republican congressman from Kansas, heading his district office in Wichita. She also worked for a year as a lobbyist and program manager at the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, which had a relationship with Pompeo, as a congressman, that “was very important to us,” said Gary Plummer, its president and chief executive.
In 2017, Pompeo hired Porter to run the CIA protocol office when he was the spy agency’s director. While there, she also helped Susan Pompeo’s outreach efforts to families of CIA officers overseas. Porter followed the couple to the State Department when Pompeo became the top American diplomat in 2018.
Porter declined to comment on the investigations. People familiar with her duties said she helped Susan Pompeo, an agency volunteer, with a wide range of tasks, including organizing the private “Madison Dinners” in a historic room at the State Department.
A report published late Tuesday by NBC outlined details of the taxpayer-funded dinners, citing guest lists and other documents to demonstrate the extent that government resources were used. The report found that contact information for the dinner guests — including known political donors and potential supporters of any future campaign by Pompeo for higher office — were sent to Susan Pompeo’s personal email address.
A State Department spokeswoman defended the dinners as an opportunity for the guests — nearly 500 invitees from the corporate, political and diplomatic communities at about two dozen events since 2018 — to discuss foreign policy.
A person who attended one of the dinners last year called it “classic soft diplomacy,” describing it as geared toward offering an informal take on American political and business issues with a foreign dignitary as the featured guest. Other attendees included another Trump Cabinet official, the chief executive of an American business and some conservative journalists and political operatives, the person said.
The Democratic-led House Appropriations Committee said in a statement Wednesday that “reports that Secretary Pompeo misused taxpayer dollars for lavish entertainment are very concerning, and these serious questions are compounded by Secretary Pompeo’s penchant for secrecy.”
Secretaries of state have used the diplomatic reception rooms atop the State Department, home to Thomas Jefferson’s desk and featuring an outdoor patio with a commanding view of Washington, to seek advice and to impress potential supporters. Condoleezza Rice held dinners there on promoting democracy, and John Kerry on the future of the Middle East.
But Pompeo finds himself in the position Hillary Clinton was a decade ago: every event scrutinized for the presence of potential donors to a future presidential campaign, and a suspicion that the sessions were about more than just foreign policy.
President Bill Clinton used overnight stays in the White House Lincoln Bedroom as a way to reward major donors, and Vice President Mike Pence courted influential donors, corporate executives and conservative political leaders at a string of private dinners at his official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington. President Barack Obama also entertained donors at the White House, as did former Vice President Joe Biden when he lived at the Naval Observatory residence.
Trump has hosted many donors at the White House, including some who were reportedly invited to Pompeo’s dinners, such as the New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer.
When such efforts are exposed, they inevitably raise questions about the use of taxpayer-funded resources for the political or personal benefit of the politician. The president and vice president are broadly exempt from laws prohibiting the use of government resources for political purposes, and Cabinet secretaries are generally allowed to participate in some political activities while on the clock, as long as they are not funded by tax dollars.
Questions over the possible misuse of taxpayer funds by Pompeo, including on frequent trips aboard department aircraft to his adopted home state, Kansas, have dogged the secretary since he began his current job.
On Monday, the person appointed by Trump as acting inspector general, Stephen J. Akard, an ally of Pence’s, came into the inspector general’s office to start his new job, even though the 30-day review period for Congress to examine Linick’s firing is still in effect, a congressional aide said. Akard is not quitting his job as head of the department’s foreign missions office, the aide said, and doing both jobs is an obvious conflict of interest.