Sec. of State Mike Pompeo’s record is coming under fresh scrutiny after President Donald Trump fired the State Department inspector general — at Pompeo’s private urging. The State Department watchdog, Steve Linick, leads hundreds of employees in investigating fraud and waste at the State Department.

Trump’s latest firing of an inspector general puts Pompeo under suspicion

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In January, news reports cited unnamed diplomats complaining about his wife, Susan Pompeo, traveling with him across the Middle East during a partial government shutdown.

In the summer, members of Congress began examining a whistleblower complaint accusing him of asking diplomatic security agents to run errands such as picking up restaurant takeout meals and retrieving the family dog, Sherman, from a groomer.

And in October, a Democratic senator called for a special counsel to investigate his use of State Department aircraft and funds for frequent visits to Kansas, where he was reported to be considering a Senate run.

In each case, Pompeo or other department officials denied wrongdoing, and the secretary moved on unscathed. 

The situation

Pompeo’s record is coming under fresh scrutiny after President Donald Trump told Congress on Friday night that he was firing the State Department inspector general — at Pompeo’s private urging, a White House official said.

»RELATED: Democrats investigating Trump firing of State Dept. watchdog

The inspector general, Steve Linick, who leads hundreds of employees in investigating fraud and waste at the State Department, had begun an inquiry into Pompeo’s possible misuse of a political appointee to perform personal tasks for him and his wife, according to Democratic aides. That included walking the dog, picking up dry cleaning and making restaurant reservations, one said — an echo of the whistleblower complaint from last year.

The details of Linick’s investigation are not clear, and it may be unrelated to the previous allegations. But Democrats and other critics of Pompeo say the cloud of accusations shows a pattern of abuse of taxpayer money — one that may mean lawmakers will be less willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt as congressional Democrats begin an investigation into Linick’s dismissal.

What it means

The Democrat-led investigation is aimed at determining whether Trump’s act to fire Linick was one of illegal retaliation intended to shield Pompeo from accountability — which “would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions,” Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, leading Democrats on foreign policy committees, said in a joint statement.

Engel stressed Sunday that Pompeo must turn over all requested records and said, “What I’ve learned about Inspector General Stephen Linick’s removal is deeply troubling.”

Linick is the fourth inspector general to fall in a purge this spring by Trump of officials he has deemed insufficiently loyal, but the dismissal is the first to prompt a formal inquiry in Congress. It has also drawn criticism from a few Republicans. 

“The president has the right to fire any federal employee,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “But the fact is, if it looks like it is in retaliation for something that the IG, the inspector general, is doing, that could be unlawful.”

She called the move “unsavory” — “when you take out someone who is there to stop waste, fraud, abuse or other violations of the law that they believe to be happening.”

No comments so far

Aides to Pompeo did not reply to repeated requests for comment. The White House did not respond to questions about whether it knew of Linick’s investigation into Pompeo when it moved to dismiss him.

Linick’s office has not commented on that inquiry or on Trump’s announcement, which started a 30-day clock on the inspector general’s departure. 

Who is Steve Linick?

Employees under Linick generally view him as competent and nonpartisan. Linick began his current job in 2013, and he held senior posts in the Justice Department starting in the administration of President George W. Bush.

In May 2016, Linick issued a report sharply criticizing Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, for her use of a private email server, and last fall he played a minor role during the impeachment hearings against Trump. A few Republican senators, notably Sens. Mitt Romney and Charles Grassley, have expressed varying degrees of disapproval of Trump’s move. But Sunday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said, “I understand it. I don’t disagree with it.”

He told CNN that he had spoken with White House and State Department officials about the matter. “I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination, let’s put it that way,” he said.

What’s at stake

Since Pompeo took up his current post in April 2018, and for more than one year before that as the CIA director, he has been peerless in his navigation of Trump’s inner world of loyal advisers and domestic politics around foreign policy. While sticking close to Trump, he has weathered the impeachment process involving Ukraine, questions about the decision to kill a top Iranian general and the fraught diplomacy between the president and Kim Jong Un, the unpredictable leader of North Korea.

But the maelstrom of questions that began over the weekend could present a formidable challenge to Pompeo’s political instincts and career ambitions. People close to him say he is thinking of running for president in 2024. And more immediately, the Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has repeatedly urged him to run for an open Senate seat in Kansas — an important race given that the Republicans are at risk of losing control of the Senate in the November elections. 

Pompeo knows the potential effect of a congressional investigation on a politician’s career: As a Republican congressman, he helped lead the charge against Clinton, then the secretary of state, over the deaths of four Americans at a mission in Benghazi, Libya, an issue that hounded her during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Susan Pompeo 

For Pompeo, the spotlight now falls on much more personal matters, including the role of his wife. Other secretaries of state have occasionally traveled with spouses, but some officials in the State Department say Susan Pompeo, a former bank executive, has played an unusually active role in running meetings and accompanying her husband on official business.

“She has this quasi-official role, where my friends are called to meetings she is leading at the department,” said Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “They know that’s not supposed to happen because she isn’t in their chain of command. But what can they do?”

Susan Pompeo has accompanied her husband on several long trips overseas. In January 2019, she went with him on an eight-day journey across the Middle East — which raised questions among some officials because most State Department employees, including those supporting the trip, were working without pay during a partial government shutdown. She has also flown with her husband on multi-night trips to Switzerland and Italy, which included a visit to the secretary’s ancestral home region of Abruzzo.

Susan Pompeo, who is not paid by the State Department, has met with embassy families and local figures on some of the trips. Her husband has called her a “force multiplier.”

She also played an unusually prominent volunteer role at the CIA when Pompeo was the director there; she traveled with her husband, used an office space in CIA headquarters and asked employees to assist her — actions that an agency spokesman defended at the time. Their son used a CIA shooting range recreationally, according to CNN.

Trips to Kansas

Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas last year also drew intense scrutiny. He went four times, three on the auspices of official business and flying in and out on State Department aircraft. To many, the trips appeared to be part of a shadow Senate campaign for 2020 and had little to do with foreign policy, despite Pompeo’s denials and his refusal so far to agree to run for the seat.

On the last trip, in October, Pompeo took part in a student event with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. And he discussed the Senate race with Charles Koch, the billionaire who is a longtime supporter of Pompeo, and Dave Robertson, president and chief operating officer of Koch Industries, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The Kansas City Star ran a blistering editorial denouncing Pompeo’s frequent trips to his adopted home state, telling him he should quit and run for Senate or “by all means focus on U.S. diplomacy — remember diplomacy? — and stop hanging out here every chance he gets.”

Four days later, Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel asking it to investigate Pompeo for potential violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their official positions to engage in partisan political activities.

‘UberEats with guns’

Separately, Democratic lawmakers on a House committee last year began looking at a whistleblower complaint that Pompeo, his wife and adult son were asking diplomatic security agents to run personal errands, including picking up Chinese food and the family dog from a groomer. The whistleblower said agents had complained they were “UberEats with guns,” according to CNN, which first reported on the accusations.

Lon Fairchild, the agent in charge of the Diplomatic Security Service, told CNN that he had seen no wrongdoing. The Democratic lawmakers did not open a formal inquiry. 

Previously

More broadly, Pompeo has wrestled with managing the State Department, though he was initially hailed by many employees as a welcome change from Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, who was perceived as aloof and dismissive.

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Last fall, current and former State Department officials criticized Pompeo for not vocally defending diplomats who were testifying in the impeachment inquiry and coming under attack from Trump, and for his own role in the earlier ouster of Marie Yovanovitch, a respected career diplomat, from the ambassadorship to Ukraine.

Since the winter, Pompeo has also found himself on unsteady ground on policy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

»PREVIOUS COVERAGE: US investigates if virus originated in Chinese lab but can’t say for sure yet

Usually outspoken on policy matters, he seemed to play a more subdued role early in the crisis. Then he chose to pull back from diplomacy with China, where the outbreak began, and relentlessly criticized the Chinese Communist Party for its actions. 

»MORE: China demands evidence as Trump, Pompeo ramp up unproven virus claims

He pushed spy agencies to look for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that the outbreak began in a virology laboratory in the city of Wuhan and later said there was “enormous” and “significant” evidence behind the theory even when many scientists and intelligence analysts argued otherwise.

On Sunday, Pompeo warned China in a statement that he was aware “the Chinese government has threatened to interfere with the work of American journalists in Hong Kong,” which has semiautonomy. He did not give details but said “these journalists are members of a free press, not propaganda cadres, and their valuable reporting informs Chinese citizens and the world.”

— Compiled by ArLuther Lee for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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