The State Department watchdog whom President Donald Trump fired last week was investigating a declaration of a national security emergency in 2019 to justify an $8.1 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, according to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Trump removed Inspector General Steve Linick on Friday evening in a letter explaining he had lost confidence in Linick’s ability to do the job. A bipartisan group of lawmakers decried the move, arguing the law requires a more detailed justification for the removal of an inspector general.
Engel joined Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., in calling for an investigation into Linick’s firing. Saturday, Engel said he learned Linick was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“Mr. Linick’s firing amid such a probe strongly suggests that this is an unlawful act of retaliation,” Engel said in a tweet.
A Democratic aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the inspector general was probing allegations that Pompeo used a political appointee at the State Department “to perform personal tasks for himself and Mrs. Pompeo.”
‘A threat to accountable democracy’:Some Republicans object to Trump dismissal of federal watchdog
Engel said he thought his request for an investigation into the arms sale in 2019 could also have been a factor in Linick’s removal.
“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing,” Engel said in a statement. “His office was investigating – at my request – Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia.
“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. The administration should comply with the probe I launched with Senator Menendez and turn over all the records requested from the Department by Friday.”
Pompeo said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday that his recommendation for the inspector general’s removal was not an act of political retaliation, as he had no knowledge that Linick was investigating him.
In May, Pompeo announced the administration deemed the arms sale to Saudi Arabia and its allies constituted a national security emergency because of “Iranian aggression.”
Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill objected to the sale over human rights concerns regarding Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s civil war and the regime”s alleged involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post. Lawmakers, including Engel and Menendez, denounced the emergency declaration as “an end run around the Congress.”
Senate Republicans joined Democrats to pass “resolutions of disapproval” to block the pending sale. Trump vetoed the resolutions and went forward with the deal.
Linick was appointed in 2013 by President Barack Obama after serving other senior roles in the U.S. government.
The State Department announced that Stephen Akard, an aide to Mike Pence when he was governor of Indiana, would replace Linick as the agency’s inspector general.
Akard has served in other State Department roles, including as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. He worked as an economic adviser for Pence, when the vice president was Indiana’s chief executive.
Trump’s critics said the firing of Linick, the fourth federal watchdog the president has removed in three weeks, is part of a pattern of the administration refusing to allowed independent oversight.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told CBS News on Sunday that “the president has the right to fire any federal employee.”
“But the fact is, if it looks like it’s in retaliation for something that the inspector general is doing, that could be unlawful,” she said.
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, Christal Hayes and Ledyard King