Friday, July 03, 2020

Democrats, Pompeo ramp up fight over decision to oust inspector general

May 30. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Karen DeYoung · NATIONAL, POLITICS, COURTSLAW

WASHINGTON - Tensions escalated Friday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and congressional Democrats, as lawmakers requested formal interviews with one former and six current senior State Department officials, and Pompeo accused Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., of "hackery" and "character assassination."

In separate letters, the lawmakers asked the officials to respond by Monday to a request for closed-door questioning on the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. The probe is being led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Linick was abruptly terminated two weeks ago by President Donald Trump, who said he acted at Pompeo's request. After Linick was barred from entering the department, news reports revealed that the subjects under investigation by his office included administration arms sales to Saudi Arabia and allegations that Pompeo and his wife used taxpayer-paid officials to perform personal errands.

In a Thursday night interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham, Pompeo said that the firing was justified because Linick's office was "leaking information" and that Linick was "investigating policies he simply didn't like." He provided no details but denied that the termination constituted "retaliation."

Linick has not made any public statements since he was fired.

The Democratic request comes after the State Department and the White House failed to meet a May 22 congressional deadline to provide documents related to Linick's firing. A Democratic congressional aide said that the State Department had made a preliminary but nonsubstantive reply, and that "the White House hasn't made any sort of reply."

The State Department officials asked to submit to interviews are Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao; Pompeo's executive secretary, Lisa Kenna; senior Pompeo adviser Toni Porter; Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper; acting legal adviser Marik String; Cooper deputy Mike Miller; and Charles Faulkner, a former deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs.

Each of the officials was believed to be "involved in Linick's firing, may have been witnesses" in investigations being carried out by him "or both," the congressional aide said. The aide said that the interviews would be conducted by members and staff of the Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees under House rules and that transcripts would be quickly released. Lawmakers were not yet "ready to say" they would issue subpoenas if the officials refused to appear, the aide said.

In a statement, Engel, Maloney and Menendez called the request an "expansion" of their probe of the Linick firing.

"We are aware that Mr. Linick's office was working on at least two investigations that touched directly on Secretary Pompeo's actions at the time that Secretary Pompeo recommended that the President fire him," they said, adding that any push by Pompeo for Linick's dismissal to "cover up his own conduct" would be "an egregious abuse of power."

"Congress has demanded answers . . . but Secretary Pompeo has failed to explain his actions," they said.

The Saudi Arabia investigation stems from a bipartisan congressional effort to block an $8 billion arms sale, beginning in 2018, because of Saudi human rights abuses and the use of U.S. munitions to bomb civilians in the war in Yemen. A year ago, Trump, through Pompeo, declared a national security "emergency" that bypassed congressional objections.

Democratic lawmakers called the emergency - attributed to Iranian aggression - "bogus" and asked Linick to investigate.

Pompeo's direct accusations against Menendez stem from questions the senator raised last year about government-funded trips the secretary took to Kansas at a time he was considering running for a Senate seat from the state.

In October, Menendez asked the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to assess whether the trips violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their positions to undertake political activity or influence elections.

In January, the OSC sent a letter to Pompeo saying it had received and reviewed "a complaint" against him, but found "no evidence to conclude that you violated the Hatch Act" and was "closing this matter."

In a letter to Menendez released late Thursday, Pompeo said that "in a recent interview, you appeared not to have knowledge of these OSC findings," and he attached the four-month-old OSC letter.

"The OSC response to your hackery makes clear your continued effort to politicize legitimate and important diplomatic and national security activity was without merit," Pompeo wrote. While it was "no surprise" that he and Menendez held "differing visions for America's foreign policy mission," he wrote, attempted "character assassination" against "me and my team . . . is not honorable or worthy of the trust Americans have placed in you."

On Friday, Menendez said in a statement that "high level temper tantrums will not stop the committee from conducting our oversight responsibilities."

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