Former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick told Congress that he was “shocked” to find out President Trump decided to remove him from his post last month and said that senior officials in the State Department had consistently told him they were satisfied with the office’s work.
“I can tell you… that I’ve been given no valid reason that would justify my removal,” Linick said, according to his interview transcripts released by multiple congressional committees Capitol Hill Wednesday. “I had a number of other contacts within the department, senior level, who always commented that we treated people fairly, that we were a productive office, and that we were doing a great job.”
Linick was fired in May by President Trump after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had requested his removal for allegedly not adhering to the department’s “ethos” statement, which includes phrases such as “I am a champion of American diplomacy,” and for supposedly engaging in a pattern of unauthorized leaks. Linick told Congress during his interview on Capitol Hill that Pompeo’s explanations for why he was terminated “are either misplaced or unfounded.”
“I received a call from the State Department operations center. The only thing they said was the President has decided to exercise his power to remove you,” Linick said. “I’ve been a dedicated public servant for 28 years. I’ve conducted my work with honor, integrity, and without regard to politics. Numerous senior officials in the department who—with whom I’ve interacted have commented that they thought our work was fair, objective, that we accomplished our mission, and that was my understanding.”
Linick’s firing came during an aggressive campaign by President Trump to oust inspectors general from their positions. So far the president has removed or replaced five of them from various parts of the administration, including the intelligence community and the transportation department.
But the State Department case raised eyebrows almost immediately when Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a release that he’d been told Linick was investigating Pompeo on several different matters before his ousting. Earlier, reports had surfaced that Pompeo and his wife were under investigation for having asked staffers to walk their dog and run errands. But Engel said Linick was also investigating Pompeo and the department for its decision to use an emergency declaration to send arms to Saudi Arabia. That investigation came at the request of members of Congress after they attempted to block the sale last summer. Linick’s testimony on Capitol Hill raises questions about the motivations by Secretary Pompeo in requesting President Trump fire the former inspector general and shows the extent to which the secretary and others in the department sought to pressure the IG office to drop the Saudi probe.
Linick confirmed with congressional investigators that his office was working on two separate inquiries related to Pompeo before his ousting. Those probes focused on the department’s decision to use an emergency declaration to sell $8 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and a misuse of government resources by the secretary and his wife, Linick said.
According to the interview transcripts, the State Department’s IG office is still working on the Saudi investigation and has requested documents related to the misuse of resources from Pompeo’s executive secretary.
Linick said his office was also involved in other probes before his removal, including a review of the International Women of Courage Award, an audit of special immigrant visas and a review of individuals in the departments’ Office of the Protocol.
Pompeo previously made claims that his decision to remove Linick from his post was not an act of retaliation because he did not know the IG’s office was investigating allegations he had an aide run personal errands for him. He told The Washington Post in an interview he only knew of a case that involved a “national security matter” and became aware of that investigation right before the report was released to the public.
But Linick said his office reached out to Pompeo directly and asked for an interview on the Saudi matter.
“Before I was removed our team asked for an interview with the Secretary. I did not talk to the Secretary personally, so I can’t tell you what he understood or what he didn’t understand. But what I can tell you is that I told Undersecretary Bulatao, Deputy Secretary Steve Biegun and the Legal Advisor about the request,” Linick said. “[Secretary Pompeo] ultimately submitted… some written answers to topic areas that we provided in advance of requesting our interview.”
The secretary refused a sit-down after the IG’s office suggested a witness from his office be present, Linick said.
“You asked for an interview, it looked like they would do an interview if it was just you and the Secretary, and then you asked for a witness, and then all of a sudden the interview didn’t happen?” asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Democratic Counsel.
“That’s correct,” Linick said, adding that Under Secretary for State Management Brian Bulatao attempted to “bully” him on several occasions, including during the Saudi probe.
“In connection with our work on… the emergency certification on the arms control, he told me that it wasn’t an appropriate review because it was a review of policy. And I told him that… it was within the IG purview to review how policy is implemented,” Linick said. “And I was trying to draw that distinction that, while we don’t engage in policymaking, we look at how policy is carried out as we are required to by law. He just continued to push back.”
In the hours following Linick’s removal, Secretary Pompeo attempted to rationalize his decision to remove Linick. In an interview with The Washington Post, Bulatao said Linick had been fired because of a “pattern of unauthorized disclosures, or leaks.” In the article, Bulatao pointed to a story published by this reporter in The Daily Beast as an example of one of those leaks.
That report summarized one of the main findings of a forthcoming IG report that in part looked at Brian Hook, the administration’s top Iran hand. He and other senior members of the State Department were under investigation by Linick’s office for a series of incidents that took place under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The IG investigation focused on Hook and other officials’ involvement in layoffs and other personnel decisions that impacted individuals who were thought to have perceived loyalty to the Obama administration. Several whistleblowers raised allegations against Hook and others, prompting the inspector general to analyze emails and other documents as part of the probe.
The Daily Beast reported that the IG’s office had decided to recommend disciplinary action for Hook. According to the report that was released several weeks later, Linick’s office found that Hook, among other officials, retaliated against an agency employee in part because of her Iranian-American background.
Linick said he had gone to the secretary’s office to discuss the forthcoming IG report two weeks before the publishing of The Daily Beast article. The former inspector general said he met with Pompeo about the article after its publication.
“The Secretary was concerned about a possible leak. It was very upsetting to me, the thought of a leak coming from the IG’s Office, because that is not something that I would tolerate. And it would certainly undermine the integrity of our report and our office, and the report was due to come out in a few weeks,” Linick said. “At that meeting, I told him that. I told him I certainly did not leak it or have any communication with The Daily Beast or any periodical. I told him that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in my office leaked it, and if they did, they would be subject to swift action, including removal.”
Linick added: “I also told him that information about that report could have been leaked from a variety of sources, including the fact that the Department already had the report.”
According to Linick’s testimony, he conferred with Bulatao and others about the leak allegations and sought out an outside investigation, first going to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE)—which did not have jurisdiction for such an investigation—then two other inspectors general. The Pentagon IG agreed to pick up the investigation and later cleared Linick’s office.
In the sit-down conversation with Linick, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) repeatedly questioned the former inspector general about whether he knew who had leaked to The Daily Beast and cast doubt on Linick going to the Department of Defense to request an inquiry into the leak allegation.
“Who do you think leaked it?” Jordan asked.
“I don’t know who leaked it. I can’t speculate. I know that a number of people touched the report. The report was in the Department’s hands,” Linick said. “ I really don’t know who leaked that report or who leaked information from the report. It’s not even clear to me that the report was leaked.”
According to a report by ABC News, a top adviser to Secretary Pompeo has requested the State’s IG office conduct another review of the leak allegations. Linick’s acting replacement is Stephen Akard, who will keep his job as the head of the department’s Office of Foreign Missions.
“Obviously, neither I nor anyone else at The Daily Beast is going to comment on our sources. But I will note that the Department of Defense Inspector General looked into whether Steve Linick’s office had leaked to the media—and found no evidence to support the accusation,” Noah Shachtman, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, said in a statement. “We stand by our reporting. More importantly, stand against any politician or public official who tries to break the sacrosanct bonds of confidentiality between reporters and their sources.”