Three years in, President Donald Trump’s vow to “drain the swamp” stands as one of his more ludicrous campaign promises. That said, his spring cleaning of inspectors general has exposed a patch of grime that threatens to make life awkward for one of his staunchest allies, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Late Friday, Trump informed Congress that he was ousting yet another internal watchdog — the fourth in six weeks. His latest target: Steven Linick of the State Department. The president offered no explanation for the firing, saying only that he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in Linick.
Pressed on his decision Monday, the president insisted that he personally had no problem with Linick. “I never even heard of him,” he told reporters. “But I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike.” Stressing repeatedly that he has the “right to terminate” as many pesky IGs as he wants to — especially those appointed by President Barack Obama — Trump professed ignorance of the details: “You’d have to ask Mike Pompeo.”
Democratic lawmakers, journalists and even some Republicans are now lining up to do just that. Because as it turns out, Pompeo asked the president to ax Linick while the inspector general was in the midst of investigating potential misconduct by … Pompeo.
Some of the secretary’s alleged behavior suggests a pattern of petty swampiness. For instance, he and his wife, Susan, are accused of inappropriately directing a staff assistant to handle domestic chores, including picking up their dry cleaning, booking restaurant reservations and walking the family dog, Sherman.
Similar charges surfaced last summer, when House Democrats were looking into a whistleblower complaint that the Pompeos had misused diplomatic security. According to CNN, the couple would dispatch agents to run personal errands such as picking up their adult son from the train station, retrieving Sherman from the groomer and fetching Chinese takeout — prompting agents to grouse that they were being treated like “UberEats with guns.”
Also last year, Susan Pompeo ruffled feathers in the department by tagging along on her husband’s trip to the Middle East during the government shutdown, running up costs and requiring staff members who were going unpaid because of the shutdown to tend to her. Questions have also arisen about why she has her own security detail, even when not traveling.
Going back further, Susan Pompeo prompted grumbling during her husband’s tenure as director of the CIA. As the honorary head of the Family Advisory Board, she would borrow offices on the seventh floor of the agency’s headquarters, where Pompeo and other top officials work; CIA staff members would assist with her projects.
Using taxpayer funds to make their lives easier or more glamorous has been a continuing issue for Trump administration officials. Remember Tom Price’s love of private planes? David Shulkin’s European sightseeing and tickets to Wimbledon? Pretty much everything Scott Pruitt ever did? At this point, a Trump Cabinet secretary could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that this sort of behavior is the new normal.
But Pompeo’s issues may go deeper. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., has revealed that Linick was also investigating whether the administration unlawfully declared an “emergency” last year that enabled Pompeo to circumvent a congressional ban and approve the resumption of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Pompeo has denied that Linick’s scrutiny of him played any role in his dismissal. He has claimed, in fact, that he didn’t even know that he was under investigation for misusing staff members.
So far, the secretary has been vague about why he wanted Linick gone — something about how the IG wasn’t “performing a function” that was “additive.” One of Pompeo’s aides, Brian Bulatao, told The Washington Post that there had been concerns about Linick’s office leaking to the media. Bulatao said the secretary also was miffed that Linick had not embraced the new “ethos statement” the department put out last year.
Democratic lawmakers would like a smidgen more clarity. Engel and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, announced Saturday that they would conduct a joint investigation into the matter.
This scrutiny comes at an inconvenient time for Pompeo. It is among Washington’s worst-kept secrets that he harbors ambitions for higher office. Some people think he plans to run for president in 2024. He had been eyeing this year’s Senate race in his home state, Kansas, and spent a striking amount of time schmoozing with folks back in the state — not exactly a focal point of American foreign policy. In January, he reportedly told the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, that he had decided against running. But with Republicans increasingly anxious about keeping control of the chamber, McConnell has been leaning on Pompeo to jump in.
Whatever Pompeo’s plans for the future, he can look forward to answering uncomfortable questions about how he’s been handling his current job.