State department inspector general Steve Linick. Picture: WIN McNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES/AFP
State department inspector general Steve Linick. Picture: WIN McNAMEE / GETTY IMAGES/AFP

Washington — Congressional Democrats on Saturday launched a probe into President Donald Trump’s “politically motivated” dismissal of a government watchdog believed to have been investigating secretary of state Mike Pompeo. 

The announcement came after Trump told House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi late on Friday that he planned to dismiss state department inspector-general Steve Linick.

It was Trump’s third abrupt dismissal of an official tasked with monitoring governmental misconduct and abuse since April, and drew criticism even from members of his own party.

“The firings of multiple inspectors-general is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” tweeted Republican Mitt Romney.

“It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power,” Romney continued.

Two senior Democrats — senator Bob Menendez and congressman Eliot Engel — said in a statement they “unalterably oppose the politically motivated firing”.

The legislators said Linick had apparently “opened an investigation into wrongdoing by secretary Pompeo himself”, and said the firing was “transparently designed to protect secretary Pompeo from personal accountability … and may be an illegal act of retaliation”.

A Democratic congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Linick was probing complaints that Pompeo inappropriately used a political appointee to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife Susan.

CNN, citing a senior state department official, reported that Pompeo himself had recommended the firing and handpicked Stephen Akard, a former aide to Vice-President Mike Pence, to succeed Linick.

By law, the administration must give Congress 30 days’ notice of its plans to terminate an inspector-general, in theory giving legislators time to study the move — and protest if warranted.

“A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress,” warned Republican senator Chuck Grassley.

But previous such firings have gone through unimpeded, and those dismissed have been replaced by political allies of the Republican president.

Engel, who heads the House foreign affairs committee, and Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, requested that the White House and state department turn over records related to Linick's dismissal.

They also asked to see files for inspector-general investigations “involving the office of the secretary that were open, pending, or incomplete at the time of Mr Linick’s firing”.

Plane trips

Pompeo has raised eyebrows for frequently travelling the world on his government plane with his wife, who has no official role.

CNN reported in 2019 that a whistle-blower had complained that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which guards US missions overseas as well as the secretary of state, had been assigned questionable tasks for the Pompeos, such as picking up takeaway food or tending to the family dog.

The state department confirmed Linick's firing but did not comment on the reason — or on whether Pompeo was under investigation.

A state department spokesperson also confirmed that the new inspector-general would be Akard, an attorney who served as a foreign affairs adviser to Pence when the latter was governor of Indiana.

Pompeo is one of Trump’s most trusted aides — and a rare one never to come publicly into the crosshairs of the mercurial president.

In recent months, Pompeo has moved US foreign policy forcefully to the Right — encouraging a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and promoting a theory, discounted by mainstream scientists, that the Covid-19 pandemic originated in a Chinese laboratory.

Linick, a longtime prosecutor, was appointed in 2013 by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama to oversee the $70bn juggernaut of US diplomacy.

He played a small role in Trump’s impeachment saga in 2019, handing to Congress documents by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani with unproven claims about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump removed as the US ambassador to Ukraine.

Trump repeated the charges to Ukraine’s president and pressed him to dig up dirt, while freezing military aid to Kiev, which is battling Russian-backed separatists.

Since his acquittal by the Senate, Trump has fumed against a “Deep State” he sees as out to get him.

He has removed or demoted inspectors-general for the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the department of health & human services, as well as a senior health official who questioned Trump’s promotion of unproven drug therapies for Covid-19.