WASHINGTON — The State Department inspector general fired by President Donald Trump on Friday was in the final stages of an investigation into whether the administration had unlawfully declared an “emergency” last year to allow the resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their air war in Yemen.
Employees from the office of the inspector general, Steve Linick, presented preliminary findings to senior State Department officials in early March, before the coronavirus forced lockdowns across the United States. But it was not clear whether that investigation, or others that Linick had underway, led to his dismissal.
Trump, speaking about the latest in his series of firings of inspectors general around the government, said on Monday of Linick: “I don’t know him. Never heard of him. But they asked me to terminate him.” He apparently was referring to a recommendation he received from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“I have the absolute right as president to terminate,” Trump added. “I said, ‘Who appointed him?’ and they say, ‘President Obama.’ I said, ‘Look I’ll terminate him.’”
The investigation into how Pompeo moved to end a congressional hold on arms sales to the Saudis was prompted in part by demands from the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who said Monday that the subsequent investigation might have been “another reason” for the firing of Linick. The White House announced the firing Friday night under a provision that requires 30 days’ notice to Congress before removing an inspector general.
Democratic leaders in Congress and several Republican lawmakers said Monday that Trump had not given sufficient justification for the firing and that they wanted answers during the 30-day review period.
Linick’s office, which has hundreds of employees assigned to look into fraud and waste at the State Department, was also examining the potential misuse by Pompeo of a political appointee to do personal errands for him and his wife, Susan Pompeo.
The inspector general’s office conducts multiple, simultaneous investigations into the activities of the State Department and its officials.
“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 said of the arms sale inquiry.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. Pompeo said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post that he had recommended to Trump that Linick be fired because Linick was “undermining” the department’s mission. Pompeo did not give details.
He also said his recommendation to fire Linick could not have been an act of retaliation to end an investigation because he had not been briefed on any inquiries.
However, top department officials had clearly received briefings from Linick’s office and been asked to comply with investigations.
Linick is widely seen as competent, though sometimes reluctant to wade into the most politically charged issues.
Nonetheless, he issued a harsh report in 2016 on the use of a private email server by Hillary Clinton, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, and played a minor role in the impeachment inquiry against Trump last fall. He issued two reports last year that criticized political appointees at the State Department, some of whom work closely with Pompeo.
Trump has appointed Ambassador Stephen Akard, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, for the role of acting inspector general. Akard, an associate of Vice President Mike Pence, failed to get congressional support for a top State Department job under Pompeo’s predecessor but was eventually confirmed for the lesser post at the foreign missions office.
The decision to resume lethal aid to the Saudis and Emiratis was a major initiative undertaken by Pompeo and Trump, who often discussed the importance of the weapons sales with officers of Raytheon, the Massachusetts-based defense contractor that lobbied heavily to get a 2017 suspension of sales lifted. Congress had imposed the suspension because of a political rift among Gulf Arab nations driven by the Saudis and because of discoveries that bomb fragments traced to Raytheon by investigators were linked to a series of Saudi bombings that killed civilians, including children.
Trump had pushed to resume the sales in 2018, justifying it as a jobs issue.
“I want Boeing and I want Lockheed and I want Raytheon to take those orders and to hire lots of people to make that incredible equipment,” he said.
But the effort to restart the sales was delayed by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident, Washington Post columnist and American resident. His death, and the suspected role of the Saudi leadership in ordering the killing, led to calls for a full end to military aid to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Pompeo broke the logjam a year ago, declaring an “emergency” over Iran’s activities in the Middle East that enabled him to sidestep the congressional ban and approve restarting the sales. That started the resumption of more normal exchanges with the Saudi government, as the Trump administration tried to move past Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia and Iran are archrivals in the region.
In June, after congressional hearings with State Department officials into the rationale for declaring an emergency over Iran, Engel sent a letter to Linick asking him to open an investigation. Engel’s office then tracked the investigation sporadically once it had begun, a Democratic aide said. The office learned by early spring that Linick had conveyed preliminary findings to the State Department.
This past weekend, after Trump notified Congress of the firing of Linick, Engel’s office learned more details of the circumstances around the arms sale investigation, leading Engel to ask whether the inquiry might have contributed to the sudden move against Linick by Pompeo and Trump.
The separate inquiry into the possible misuse of a political appointee to run personal errands was still a potential factor, and there might be other motivations for the firing that remain unknown, an aide said.
Aaron David Miller, a former American official on Middle East policy who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that a year ago, “there was no credible emergency nor any real urgency for invoking an Iran emergency declaration for lethal arms sales to the Saudis other than the administration’s desire to please Saudi Arabia.”
He added that American officials “don’t want anyone digging around in the triangular relationship between the administration, Raytheon and Saudi because somebody crossed the line.”
Trump and Pompeo were aware of the sensitivities around trying to bypass the congressional hold on the arms sales. Pompeo made the announcement of the “emergency” declaration over Iran on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend last year, a common move by government officials to avoid immediate questions from Congress and extensive news coverage. The administration also announced it was sending 1,500 more troops to the Middle East.
The move was aimed at allowing U.S. companies to sell $8.1 billion worth of munitions in 22 pending transfers mainly to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At the time, a person briefed on the decision said, a part of the arrangement would involve a transfer of munitions from the UAE to Jordan that had nothing to do with Iran.
Pompeo had pushed aggressively for the sales, over the objections of career Foreign Service officers and lawmakers.
After the announcement of the “emergency” on May 24, lawmakers pointedly asked why, if there was such a crisis, Pompeo and Patrick Shanahan, then the acting defense secretary, had not briefed them on the situation and on the need to push through arms sales in a closed-door discussion on Iran just three days earlier.
In June, lawmakers called top State Department officials to testify about the decision. Some of their questions focused on the roles played by Charles Faulkner, a former Raytheon lobbyist who worked in the State Department’s legislative affairs bureau, and Marik String, a former deputy assistant secretary in the political-military affairs bureau who became a top department legal adviser in late May.
In a contentious hearing on June 12, lawmakers pressed R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state in the political-military affairs bureau, on the move. Cooper argued that a continued hold on the sales would cede commercial advantages to Russia and China. One lawmaker asked whether Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a Middle East adviser with close ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, had weighed in on the decision. Cooper demurred at first, then said no.