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Saudi arms sale was a second area of investigation for fired State Department watchdog

The inspector general was looking into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to greenlight the sale against the will of Congress when he was abruptly removed from his post.
Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pauses while speaking at a news conference at the State Department
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference at the State Department on April 29, 2020.Andrew Harnik / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Ousted State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to greenlight arms sales to Saudi Arabia against the will of Congress when he was abruptly removed from his post, congressional officials tell NBC News.

The probe into the Saudi arms sale is the second known investigation into Pompeo’s activities that Linick is known to have been pursuing when he was fired by President Donald Trump on Friday evening, in a letter to Congress explaining that the administration no longer had confidence in Linick. The inspector general was also looking into allegations Pompeo enlisted a political appointee to perform personal chores like picking up dry cleaning, NBC News previously reported.

Three officials from different congressional committees say investigators on Capitol Hill believe that Linick’s investigations into the Saudi arms sale and Pompeo’s use of the political aide contributed to his firing. A White House official has said that Pompeo recommended to Trump that Linick be fired, and that Trump agreed.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., confirmed Monday that Linick was looking into the Saudi arms deal.

“His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” Engel said in a statement. “We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.”

Engel urged the Trump administration to comply with a request for related records jointly issued late last week by Engel’s committee and by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The State Department and Pompeo’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in brief excerpts from a forthcoming interview with The Washington Post, posted by the reporter to Twitter, Pompeo said the inspector general “wasn't performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to" and was "trying to undermine what it was that we were trying to do."

Trump in May 2019 issued an emergency declaration, using Iran concerns as the basis, that allowed the administration to sell billions in arms to the Saudis despite opposition from both parties in Congress following atrocities in Riyadh's military effort in Yemen, the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other concerns about Saudi Arabia. The total for that tranche of sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was about $8 billion.

That emergency declaration enabled Pompeo to expedite the arms to the Saudis without the typical congressional notification process, in which Congress has a window to block proposed foreign military sales that it opposes.

“Today’s action will quickly augment our partners’ capacity to provide for their own self-defense and reinforce recent changes to U.S. posture in the region to deter Iran,” Pompeo said in a May 24 statement announcing the emergency notification.

But lawmakers from both parties have maintained there was no legitimate emergency to justify sidestepping Congress by authorizing the arms sale, arguing that it’s unclear how the weapons could even help Saudi Arabia defend itself against Iran, which has long preferred asymmetric warfare and use of proxy groups to actual military-to-military conflict with its enemies.

Linick’s firing has prompted bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill, with Democrats calling it clear retaliation and many Republicans taking the milder approach of saying that the administration has failed to offer a specific rationale for why he was removed. One Republican who has frequently sparred with Trump, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, called Linick’s removal "a threat to accountable democracy."

Linick was also investigating whether Pompeo made the political appointee walk his dog and make dinner reservations for him and his wife, among other personal errands, congressional officials said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House Monday, President Trump defended Pompeo and the his decision to fire Linick. “I don't know anything about him other than the State Department, and Mike, in particular, I guess they weren't happy with the job he's doing or something,” Trump said. “So, because it's my right to do it, I said, ‘Sure, I'll do it.’ I've gotten rid of a lot of inspector generals. Every president has.”

When asked about the revelations about what the IG was investigating, Trump defended his secretary of state. “Here's a man supposed to be negotiating war and peace with major, major countries,” Trump said, “with weaponry like the world has never seen before and the Democrats and the fake news media, they're interested in a man who's walking their dog? And maybe he's busy, and maybe he's negotiating with Kim Jong-un, okay, about nuclear weapons so that he'd say, 'please, can you walk my dog?'”

The White House made clear over the weekend that President Trump and his aides wanted the State Department, not the White House, to handle the fallout from the firing of the inspector general, a White House official said. And officials have taken note that the effort to contain the fallout has been unsuccessful.

Routine ethics briefings for State Department officials include the admonition that they may not enlist people who report directly to them to perform personal errands, a current and a former State Department official said. Federal regulations also say an employee “shall not encourage, direct, coerce, or request a subordinate to use official time to perform activities other than those required in the performance of official duties or authorized in accordance with law or regulation.”