Pompeo defends firing of State Department watchdog, says it wasn't retaliatory

"Frankly, I should have done it some time ago," Pompeo said of his request that President Donald Trump remove the inspector general.

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By Rebecca Shabad and Abigail Williams

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended his request to have the State Department inspector general fired, saying Wednesday that it wasn't in retaliation for investigations the watchdog was conducting.

"Frankly, I should have done it some time ago," Pompeo told reporters at a news conference.

Pompeo said he made the recommendation to President Donald Trump, who fired Inspector General Steve Linick late Friday, notifying Congress in a letter that his administration no longer had confidence in Linick.

Linick was investigating allegations that Pompeo enlisted a political appointee to perform personal chores, such as picking up dry cleaning and walking his dog, NBC News reported over the last week. Linick was also looking into Pompeo's decision to greenlight arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the objections of Congress.

Pompeo declined to answer questions Wednesday about what specifically Linick had done to prompt the recommendation for his ouster, saying he wouldn't discuss personnel matters.

But he denied that the firing was retaliatory.

"Let's be clear. There are claims that this was for retaliation, for some investigation that the inspector general's office was engaged in," Pompeo said. "Patently false. I've seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. It's just crazy."

Pompeo said he didn't have access to the information the inspector general was investigating, adding: "I couldn't possibly have retaliated. It would have been impossible."

He also accused the office of Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, of leaking the information about Pompeo and Linick's firing to the press.

"This is all coming through the office of Senator Menendez," Pompeo said. "I don't get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted."

Corruption charges against Menendez were dropped in 2018 after a mistrial.

Menendez hit back Wednesday, calling Pompeo's comments "shameful" and saying the actions the inspector general had been looking into are "possibly illegal."

"The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful," Menendez said. "The secretary should focus on answering questions and getting his story straight as to why he wanted to target IG Linick."

The Trump administration has replaced watchdogs at several departments in recent weeks, including the acting inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, the acting inspector general of the Transportation Department and a top Pentagon official leading the committee responsible for overseeing implementation of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief law.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at her weekly news conference Wednesday that it is "standard fare" for an inspector general to interview the person in charge of an operation that's being investigated. A congressional official confirmed to NBC News that Pompeo declined to be interviewed by Linick for his investigation into a Saudi arms deal.

Pelosi said that she's very concerned about the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and that Pompeo should go to Congress to testify about that issue and other topics.

"We must insist upon the truth. There's Congress, there's the courts and there's the court of public opinion," said Pelosi, who did not say whether Democrats would subpoena Pompeo.

She added that for future Democratic and Republican presidents, "I don't believe that a president should be able to fire a public official who was investigating him or her."

Josh Lederman contributed.