WASHINGTON – A top Senate Republican said the Trump administration has failed to justify the ouster of two government watchdogs and suggested the vague rationale would fuel speculation that "political" motivations are at play.
The unusual rebuke – from Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has long supported government whistleblowers – comes amid intense congressional scrutiny of President Donald Trump's decision to fire Steve Linick, the State Department's inspector general, on May 15. Trump said he removed Linick at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Linick was investigating two matters that touched directly on Pompeo's actions: allegations that he used a State Department employee to run personal errands, and the State Department's decision to greenlight a highly controversial $8 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Grassley and other lawmakers have also raised alarms about Trump's removal of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, who informed congressional leaders about a whistleblower complaint that led to the president's impeachment.
"Without sufficient explanation, it’s fair to question the president’s rationale for removing an inspector general," Grassley, normally a staunch Trump ally, said in a statement Tuesday night.
The 4 ousted watchdogs: The Trump administration has recently moved to oust 4 government watchdogs. Here they are:
Grassley had demanded explanations from the White House for Atkinson's and Linick's ousters, but said the response he received from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone was insufficient. In a May 26 letter, Cipollone asserted Trump's "constitutional right" to remove the two inspector generals, who are charged with ferreting out corruption and waste inside the federal government.
"If the president has a good reason to remove an inspector general, just tell Congress what it is. Otherwise, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self interests are to blame," Grassley said Wednesday. "That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability."
Democrats have opened an investigation into Linick's ouster, saying it smacks of political retaliation and suggesting Pompeo was trying quash Linick's investigations.
"If Secretary Pompeo’s recommendation to remove Mr. Linick was made to chill or curtail these, or any, investigations the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General was pursuing, we believe Mr. Linick’s termination could be considered an unlawful act of retaliation and should be reversed immediately," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter Wednesday to the State Department's No. 2 official, Stephen Biegun.
Pompeo has dismissed accusations of wrongdoing and said Linick's ouster was not retaliatory.
"It’s patently false. I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the Inspector General’s Office," he told reporters during a May 20 media briefing. But moments later, Pompeo conceded that he did know about the Saudi arms probe, telling reporters he answered written questions from the IG's office.
"That was some time earlier this year, as best I can recall," he said, adding that he didn't know the scope or outcome of that inquiry.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged that Pompeo is now seeking a second weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and suggested Linick may have been an obstacle to that deal.
"The administration is currently trying to sell thousands more precision-guided bombs to the President's 'friend,' Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," Menendez wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday by CNN. "Before we went into pandemic lockdown, I received draft State Department documentation that it is now pursuing this previously undisclosed sale -- details of which have not yet been made public."
He said Pompeo has refused to answer his questions about the draft document.
Grassley said Linick's replacement – Stephen J. Akard, a one-time aide to Vice President Mike Pence – has a conflict of interest because he also serves in another top role at the State Department. Trump appointed Akard to lead the agency's Office of Foreign Missions, a position he has held since 2019.
Grassley blasted the decision to put a State Department political appointee in the inspector general's office and allow him to keep both positions.
"The White House Counsel’s letter does not address this glaring conflict of interest," he said. "Congress established inspectors general to serve the American people – to be independent and objective watchdogs, not agency lapdogs. That’s the only way they can help drain the swamp of waste, fraud, and abuse entrenched within unelected bureaucracies."
Engel also took aim at Akard, who worked as an economic adviser for Pence when the now-vice president was Indiana's governor.
In addition to his conflicting dual roles, "Akard has no investigatory or law enforcement experience," Engel said in his letter Wednesday. "Even if he were to completely sever his ties with the Department, he would remain unqualified to run the OIG ... We are left with the unavoidable impression that the real reason for placing Ambassador Akard in the OIG is so that he may undermine and scale back the work of the office."
Engel and other Democrats have asked the State Department to turn over internal documents related to Linick's firing and called on the IG's office to share information about the investigations of Pompeo and the Saudi arms sale.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chuck Grassley blasts Trump justification for ousting watchdogs