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Pompeo denies wrongdoing in Trump removal of State Department watchdog

At the time of Inspector General Steve Linick's firing, he was probing the secretary of state's use of government resources.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks on June 11, 2020 at the State Department.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks on June 11, 2020 at the State Department.Yuri Gripas / Pool via AP

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is again denying allegations that the State Department's watchdog was fired for investigating him for possible misuse of government resources.

Former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick told Congress last week that three senior advisers in Pompeo's office, including Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun, were aware that he was probing Pompeo's and his wife's use of government resources prior to his ousting in May.

The revelation possibly undermines Pompeo's claim to have been unaware Linick was investigating him when he recommended Linick's firing to President Donald Trump.

In letters addressed to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and obtained by NBC News, Pompeo accused Engel, whose panel is probing Linick's removal, of providing "a clearly misleading narrative to the American people" and denied the "nasty insinuation" that Linick's removal was tied to the ongoing investigation.

In a separate letter to Engel obtained by NBC News, Biegun said Pompeo had no knowledge of Linick's investigation.

Biegun said there had been a firewall to preclude the secretary's involvement in any specific watchdog investigation.

"We can confirm unequivocally that, to the extent that any of us were made of any 'investigation' of this nature, none of us briefed Secretary Pompeo on, or otherwise discussed with him, this purported 'investigation'," Biegun wrote.

The letters, dated Thursday, were first reported by AP.

“I need an Inspector General working every day with integrity to improve State Department operations and efficiency,” Pompeo wrote. “Mr. Linick was not that person.”

Instead, Pompeo said, he referred Linick to Trump for removal based on a "failure to perform his duties over a series of months," as well as "strange and erratic behavior."

Linick told Congress last week he had been given "no valid reason" that would justify his removal and the explanations he had read in the press were either "unfounded or misplaced."

The secretary also took a personal jab at Engel.

“I hear you've been busy in your district, so let me get you up to speed on what’s been happening in your committee,” Pompeo wrote, adding a reference to a news article titled, "Amid a pandemic and protests, Rep. Eliot Engel is fighting for his political survival."

Pompeo said that a close adviser, Under Secretary for Management Brian Bulatao, was willing to appear publicly before Engel's committee later this month to “unambiguously refute” accusations of impropriety. Bulatao, who Linick said tried to "bully" him as he was probing Pompeo's alleged misconduct, is a central figure to the congressional inquiry, his name appearing over 70 times in the transcript of Linick's testimony released this week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Bulatao, who graduated in the same West Point class as Pompeo, is a longtime confidant of the secretary. The two were business partners, and when Pompeo was CIA director, he named Bulatao as chief operating officer at the agency.

Engel, in a letter addressed to Pompeo Friday, accepted the offer for Bulatao to testify, though he said his committee still wanted to hear from a number of other officials. He also pushed back on Pompeo's characterization of the committee's inquiry.

"I must correct your insinuations about the motives behind this investigation. President Trump’s firing spree of inspectors general has undermined the important work of our government’s independent watchdogs," Engel wrote. "The President’s apparent effort to remove accountability from his administration has raised bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill. This investigation seeks to determine whether anything improper motivated the President’s decision to remove Mr. Linick."

On a "personal note," the chairman said, “I also remember when we were colleagues, and the zeal you then possessed for congressional oversight on matters such as Benghazi and emails."

“After reading your letter, which was reported in the press shortly after you transmitted it to me, I feel compelled to offer a bit of unsolicited advice: the world listens to the words of America’s top diplomat; the world watches the way the branches of our democratic government operate and interact with one another, especially when our constitutionally required checks and balances are at work; the world takes note when individuals who should be standard bearers of American values, character, strength, and courage instead hide behind ad hominem attacks against perceived political enemies,“ Engel said.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would support calling Bulatao to testify.

“It is clear that both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the State Department desire an exchange of information and the opportunity to explain to one another their views on this matter,” McCaul said Friday in a statement. “Therefore, it would make sense for Under Secretary Bulatao to come before the committee in the near future.”

NBC News previously reported that at the time of Linick's firing, he was probing allegations that Pompeo made a staffer walk his dog, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations for Pompeo and his wife, among other personal errands. NBC News also reported that Linick was investigating a U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia.