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Fired IG was probing State Department's withdrawal of award to Trump critic

Under Trump, the State Department routinely scans social media posts of potential guests for events, officials tell NBC News.
State Watchdog Details Plan To Punish Ukraine Probe Witnesses
Steve Linick, State Department inspector general, exits after closed-door testimony on Capitol Hill on Oct. 2, 2019.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Before being fired, the State Department’s independent watchdog was investigating why a prestigious award was yanked away from a Finnish journalist who’d criticized President Donald Trump on social media, a congressional transcript reveals and officials familiar with the matter confirm.

Former Inspector General Steve Linick told Congress his review into the International Women of Courage Award was among matters that “involve the Office of the Secretary,” although he didn’t elaborate. It’s the first indication the inspector general may have believed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s office was involved in the 2019 decision to rescind the award.

Linick’s disclosure comes amid heightened scrutiny into potential political motivations behind Pompeo’s actions and decisions as secretary in the wake of his decision to oust the inspector general.

Several U.S. officials told NBC News that it’s become routine in Trump’s State Department to vet potential guests for official events for past social media comments criticizing Trump, and to limit invites to those who have been publicly supportive of the president.

In this case, Linick was following up on a request from a group of Democratic senators to probe why the State Department had revoked its invitation to investigative journalist Jessikka Aro last year to be honored with nine other women at a ceremony involving first lady Melania Trump, U.S. and congressional officials said.

The senators, in their own investigation, obtained documents they said corroborated a report in Foreign Policy that said Aro’s award was nixed after U.S. officials found frequent social media posts criticizing Trump.

Those documents included official emails showing the State Department offered Aro the award, then asked for her social media handles, then rescinded the offer while providing no reason.

Linick made the disclosure during an hours-long interview with lawmakers as he listed the Pompeo-related matters he was pursuing when Pompeo had Trump fire him last month. Multiple congressional committees are investigating why Pompeo wanted Linick gone. A transcript of last week’s interview was released Wednesday.

“These matters involve the Office of the Secretary in some way,” Linick said.

Linick said the investigation was ongoing when he was fired on May 15 and that he has no knowledge of what happened to it since. His former office didn’t respond to an inquiry about whether the probe is still active.

The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Aro, in an email, said she was “shocked and disappointed to learn that internationally well-reputed Mr. Linick was fired in shady circumstances.”

“At this point, I sincerely hope that all the investigations he launched will be continued and finalized professionally under the new IG's command,” Aro told NBC News. “There's a wide international interest in finding out who gave the order to cancel my courage award, and I hope one day we all learn his name."

It’s unclear what Linick’s investigation may have revealed about why Aro’s award was rescinded. At the time, a State Department spokesman said she had been “incorrectly notified” that she had been placed as a finalist due to an error. Other officials told NBC News that the episode resulted from bureaucratic infighting among the State Department’s regional bureaus.

But one State Department official involved in the women’s award said vetting individuals who might attend an event with Pompeo and the first lady for social media comments is in line with typical practices in the department during this administration.

“It’s very common for us to Google these people to see — have they said anything bad about Trump or Pompeo?” the official said. Those who have may get flagged for political appointees in the department to decide whether to strike them from the invite list, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters and requested anonymity.

Neither Trump nor Pompeo have provided any specific reason for why Linick, who as inspector general is expected to be independent, was fired, even as lawmakers from both parties demand that the administration fulfill its obligation under the Inspector General Reform Act to provide a written explanation.

“Steve Linick was a bad actor in the inspector general office here. He didn't take on the mission of the State Department to make us better,” Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday. “That's what inspector generals are supposed to do. They work for the agency head — that's me — and they're supposed to deliver and help make that organization better. That's not what Mr. Linick did.”