WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump accelerated his retaliatory purge of public servants by firing the State Department’s inspector general, who had played a minor role in the president’s impeachment proceedings and was said to have begun investigating alleged misconduct by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Acting on Pompeo’s recommendation, Trump abruptly terminated Steve Linick late Friday night, again challenging established norms of American governance in his push to rid the federal bureaucracy of officials he considers insufficiently loyal to or protective of him and his administration. Trump replaced Linick with Stephen Akard, a trusted ally of Vice President Mike Pence and the diplomat who directs the Office of Foreign Missions.
Inspectors general serve as internal government watchdogs conducting oversight of federal agencies – and although they technically are political appointees, their independence has long been protected. Trump’s move – his fourth such firing during the coronavirus pandemic – drew swift condemnations from Democrats and at least one Republican on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., decried what she termed a “dangerous pattern of retaliation against the patriotic public servants charged with conducting oversight on behalf of the American people.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, jointly launched an investigation Saturday into Linick’s firing.
“We unalterably oppose the politically-motivated firing of inspectors general and the President’s gutting of these critical positions,” Engel and Menendez wrote in a letter to the White House directing that all records related to Linick’s ouster be preserved and turned over to their committees.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, wrote Saturday evening on Twitter: The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose. It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.
Officials at the White House and the State Department did not detail the reasons for Linick’s dismissal or address the criticisms from Democrats.
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said, “Secretary Pompeo recommended the move, and President Trump agreed.” Another U.S. official confirmed that Pomepo supported Linick’s firing in discussions with Trump.
Trump wrote in a letter to Pelosi sent Friday night, “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime champion of the independence of inspectors general from partisan interference, was notably tepid in his response. In a statement issued Saturday, Grassley said that “inspectors general are crucial in correcting government failures and promoting the accountability that the American people deserve.” He said Trump ought to further justify his decision beyond citing “a general lack of confidence,” though he stopped short of criticizing Linick’s dismissal.
Linick had served as inspector general since 2013, when he was appointed by President Barack Obama. A former assistant U.S. attorney and career government official, Linick also served in the Justice Department as a senior anti-fraud official and as inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency before his appointment to the State Department.
Some of Linick’s recent investigations have been critical of the State Department’s management and caused consternation among Trump’s political appointees there. He has been perceived as a persistent thorn in the side of the administration under Pompeo.
Linick had recently launched an investigation into the use of a Schedule C employee by Pompeo and his wife to conduct personal activities, according to lawmakers and people familiar with the inspector general’s office. A Schedule C employee is a non-career official working directly for a presidential appointee.
Engel and Menendez wrote in their letter Saturday to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that if Linick’s firing had been designed to protect Pompeo from personal accountability, it may have been “an illegal act of retaliation.”
A Pompeo spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Questions also have been raised about the State Department’s response to the pandemic, which would fall under the inspector general’s purview.
Linick’s firing is the latest in a series of moves by Trump since the Senate voted in February to acquit him in his impeachment trial. The president has vowed repeatedly to destroy what he calls the “deep state” by removing government officials he believes conspired against him in the impeachment proceedings or are otherwise disloyal.
“I never knew the swamp was so bad,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 29, about three weeks after his acquittal. “It’s really bad. . . . A lot of dirty people. A lot of very bad people. A lot of bad people. And I think justice will be had.”
Although other State Department officials played far more prominent roles in the impeachment inquiry, Linick last October provided congressional investigators with a packet of internal documents containing unproven claims about former vice president Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said at the time that he had been responsible for sending some of those materials to the State Department.
In recent weeks, Trump has ousted three other internal government watchdogs. The president fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who had handled the explosive whistleblower complaint that led to his impeachment.
Trump also pushed out Glenn Fine, chairman of the federal panel Congress created to oversee his administration’s management of the government’s $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. And he removed Christi Grimm as principal deputy inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, after Grimm’s office criticized the administration’s response to the pandemic.
The president lashed out publicly at Grimm, whose office detailed “severe shortages” of testing kits, delays in receiving test results and “widespread shortages” of masks and other protective equipment at U.S. hospitals.
There is no modern precedent for so many firings of inspectors general in such a compressed time period. Obama fired one inspector general, citing job performance issues. President Ronald Reagan tried to remove several but reversed himself after aides told him that watchdogs are not political appointees in the traditional sense.
Trump’s moves have rattled the nonpartisan community of federal watchdogs, many of whom are longtime public servants. About 30 of the 74 current inspectors general are Senate-confirmed presidential appointees, with the rest appointed by heads of smaller agencies.
“Some people are scared. Others are outraged. We all recognize how bad this is for our country,” one inspector general said in describing the reaction of Obama and Trump appointees alike. This official, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid without fear of retribution.
For weeks, inspectors general said they have had urgent conversations among themselves about how to continue doing their jobs in the Trump administration without compromising their principles or going easy on the subjects of their probes.
“Things are taking a very dark turn,” said a second inspector general.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who heads the council of 74 federal inspectors general, declined to comment Saturday.
Walter Shaub, who resigned as director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics six months into Trump’s presidency after clashing with the new administration, said he has been alarmed by Trump’s efforts this spring to remove “anybody who could protest or expose or investigate his corruption.”
“During the pandemic, he knows Americans are distracted with the simple tasks of staying alive and feeding their families,” Shaub said. “Times of crisis are very dangerous for anti-corruption efforts and very dangerous for democracy because leaders use them to justify power grabs. I think that’s what’s happening here.”
At the State Department and other large agencies, inspectors general do not have fixed terms once they are confirmed by the Senate. Although they serve at the pleasure of the president, they have not traditionally been treated as political appointees and therefore occupy a murky space in the bureaucracy.
Some State Department officials have questioned the slow speed of inquiries conducted by Linick, and the lack of investigation into the treatment of Yovanovitch, the career ambassador who Trump fired last year.
But many of the office’s probes have been sharply critical. An August 2019 report concluded that the leadership of the State Department’s Bureau of International Organizations Affairs mistreated and harassed staffers, accused them of political disloyalty to the Trump administration and retaliated against them.
Career staffers who had held their jobs in the previous administration were referred to as “Obama holdovers,” “traitors” and members of the “Deep State” that Trump has long accused of using the bureaucracy to thwart his policies, according to the report.
A second report, issued last November, found that a civil service employee relieved of her job as an expert on Iran and the Persian Gulf in the office of policy planning had been targeted in part because she was of Iranian descent, as well as for her work during the Obama administration – including on the Iran nuclear deal – and rumors that she had shed tears at Trump’s election.
In January, an inspector general investigation of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki found that Trump-appointed Ambassador Robert Pence, and the career Foreign Service officer who served as second-in-command, “did not manage conflict between them in an appropriate manner, which resulted in a breakdown of trust and communication that complicated the chain of command and contributed to a stressful work environment” for staff. Pence, a Virginia real estate developer and Republican donor, has no relation to the vice president.
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The Washington Post’s John Hudson and Carol Morello contributed to this report.