Trump ramps up re­tal­ia­tory purge with fir­ing of IG

STATE DEPT. WATCH­DOG IS LAT­EST TAR­GET Democrats de­cry ‘pat­tern,’ be­gin in­ves­ti­ga­tion


Pres­i­dent Trump ac­cel­er­ated his re­tal­ia­tory purge of public ser­vants by fir­ing the State Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, who had played a mi­nor role in the pres­i­dent’s im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings and was said to have be­gun in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­leged misconduct by Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo.

Act­ing on Pom­peo’s rec­om­men­da­tion, Trump abruptly ter­mi­nated Steve A. Linick late Fri­day night, again chal­leng­ing es­tab­lished norms of Amer­i­can gover­nance in his push to rid the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy of of­fi­cials he con­sid­ers in­suf­fi­ciently loyal to or pro­tec­tive of him and his ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump re­placed Linick with Stephen J. Akard, a trusted ally of Vice Pres­i­dent Pence and the diplo­mat who di­rects the Of­fice of For­eign Mis­sions.

In­spec­tors gen­eral serve as in­ter­nal gov­ern­ment watch­dogs con­duct­ing over­sight of fed­eral agen­cies — and although they tech­ni­cally are po­lit­i­cal appointees, their in­de­pen­dence has long been pro­tected. Trump’s move — his fourth such fir­ing dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic — drew

swift con­dem­na­tions from Democrats and at least one Repub­li­can on Capi­tol Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) de­cried what she termed a “dan­ger­ous pat­tern of re­tal­i­a­tion against the pa­tri­otic public ser­vants charged with con­duct­ing over­sight on be­half of the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Eliot L. En­gel (D-N.Y.) and the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat, Robert Me­nen­dez (N.J.), launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion Satur­day into Linick’s fir­ing.

“We un­al­ter­ably op­pose the po­lit­i­cally-mo­ti­vated fir­ing of in­spec­tors gen­eral and the Pres­i­dent’s gut­ting of these crit­i­cal po­si­tions,” En­gel and Me­nen­dez wrote in a let­ter to the White House di­rect­ing that all records re­lated to Linick’s ouster be pre­served and turned over.

Sen. Mitt Rom­ney (R-Utah) wrote Satur­day evening on Twit­ter: “The fir­ings of mul­ti­ple In­spec­tors Gen­eral is un­prece­dented; do­ing so with­out good cause chills the in­de­pen­dence es­sen­tial to their pur­pose. It is a threat to ac­count­able democ­racy and a fis­sure in the con­sti­tu­tional bal­ance of power.”

Of­fi­cials at the White House and the State Depart­ment did not de­tail the rea­sons for Linick’s dis­missal or ad­dress the crit­i­cisms from Democrats.

A White House of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions, said, “Sec­re­tary Pom­peo rec­om­mended the move, and Pres­i­dent Trump agreed.” An­other U.S. of­fi­cial con­firmed that Pom­peo sup­ported Linick’s fir­ing in dis­cus­sions with Trump.

Trump wrote in a let­ter to Pelosi sent Fri­day night, “It is vi­tal that I have the fullest con­fi­dence in the appointees serv­ing as In­spec­tors Gen­eral. That is no longer the case with re­gard to this In­spec­tor Gen­eral.”

Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley (R-Iowa), a long­time cham­pion of the in­de­pen­dence of in­spec­tors gen­eral from par­ti­san in­ter­fer­ence, was notably tepid in his re­sponse. In a state­ment is­sued Satur­day, Grass­ley said that “in­spec­tors gen­eral are cru­cial in cor­rect­ing gov­ern­ment fail­ures and pro­mot­ing the ac­count­abil­ity that the Amer­i­can peo­ple de­serve.” He said Trump ought to fur­ther jus­tify his de­ci­sion be­yond cit­ing “a gen­eral lack of con­fi­dence,” but stopped short of crit­i­ciz­ing the dis­missal.

Linick had served as in­spec­tor gen­eral since 2013, when he was ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. A former as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­ney and ca­reer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, Linick also served in the Jus­tice Depart­ment as a se­nior an­tifraud of­fi­cial and as in­spec­tor gen­eral of the Fed­eral Hous­ing Fi­nance Agency be­fore his ap­point­ment to the State Depart­ment.

Some of Linick’s re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tions have been crit­i­cal of the State Depart­ment’s man­age­ment and caused con­ster­na­tion among Trump’s po­lit­i­cal appointees there. He has been per­ceived as a per­sis­tent thorn in the side of the ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der Pom­peo.

Linick had re­cently launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the use of a Sched­ule C em­ployee by Pom­peo and his wife to con­duct per­sonal ac­tiv­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to law­mak­ers and peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice. A Sched­ule C em­ployee is a non-ca­reer of­fi­cial work­ing di­rectly for a pres­i­den­tial ap­pointee.

En­gel and Me­nen­dez wrote in their let­ter Satur­day to White House Chief of Staff Mark Mead­ows that if Linick’s fir­ing had been de­signed to pro­tect Pom­peo from per­sonal ac­count­abil­ity, it may have been “an il­le­gal act of re­tal­i­a­tion.”

A Pom­peo spokesman did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Ques­tions also have been raised about the State Depart­ment’s re­sponse to the pan­demic, which would fall un­der the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s purview.

Linick’s fir­ing is the lat­est in a se­ries of moves by Trump since the Se­nate voted in Fe­bru­ary to ac­quit him in his im­peach­ment trial. The pres­i­dent has vowed re­peat­edly to de­stroy what he calls the “deep state” by re­mov­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials he be­lieves con­spired against him in the im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings or are oth­er­wise dis­loyal.

Although other State Depart­ment of­fi­cials played far more prom­i­nent roles in the im­peach­ment in­quiry, Linick last Oc­to­ber pro­vided con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors with a packet of in­ter­nal doc­u­ments con­tain­ing un­proven claims about former vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, his son Hunter Bi­den and former U.S. am­bas­sador to Ukraine Marie Yo­vanovitch. Trump lawyer Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani said at the time that he had been re­spon­si­ble for send­ing some of those ma­te­ri­als to the State Depart­ment.

In re­cent weeks, Trump has ousted three other in­ter­nal gov­ern­ment watch­dogs. The pres­i­dent fired the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, Michael Atkin­son, who had han­dled the ex­plo­sive whistle­blower com­plaint that led to im­peach­ment.

Trump also pushed out Glenn Fine, chair­man of the fed­eral panel Congress cre­ated to over­see his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s man­age­ment of the gov­ern­ment’s $2 tril­lion coro­n­avirus stimulus pack­age. And he re­moved Christi Grimm as prin­ci­pal deputy in­spec­tor gen­eral for the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, af­ter Grimm’s of­fice crit­i­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the pan­demic.

There is no modern prece­dent for so many fir­ings of in­spec­tors gen­eral in such a com­pressed time pe­riod. Obama fired one, cit­ing job per­for­mance is­sues. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan tried to re­move sev­eral but re­versed him­self af­ter aides told him that watch­dogs are not po­lit­i­cal appointees in the tra­di­tional sense.

Trump’s moves have rat­tled the non­par­ti­san com­mu­nity of watch­dogs, many of whom are long­time public ser­vants. About 30 of the 74 cur­rent in­spec­tors gen­eral are Se­nate-con­firmed pres­i­den­tial appointees, with the rest ap­pointed by heads of smaller agen­cies.

“Some peo­ple are scared. Others are out­raged. We all rec­og­nize how bad this is for our coun­try,” one in­spec­tor gen­eral said in de­scrib­ing the re­ac­tion of Obama and Trump appointees alike. This of­fi­cial, like others in­ter­viewed, spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to be can­did with­out fear of ret­ri­bu­tion.

For weeks, in­spec­tors gen­eral said they have had ur­gent con­ver­sa­tions among them­selves about how to con­tinue do­ing their jobs in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion with­out com­pro­mis­ing their prin­ci­ples or go­ing easy on the sub­jects of their probes.

“Things are tak­ing a very dark turn,” said a sec­ond in­spec­tor gen­eral.

Wal­ter Shaub, who re­signed as direc­tor of the U.S. Of­fice of Gov­ern­ment Ethics six months into Trump’s pres­i­dency af­ter clashing with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion, said he has been alarmed by Trump’s ef­forts this spring to re­move “any­body who could protest or ex­pose or in­ves­ti­gate his cor­rup­tion.”

“Dur­ing the pan­demic, he knows Amer­i­cans are dis­tracted with the sim­ple tasks of stay­ing alive and feed­ing their fam­i­lies,” Shaub said. “Times of cri­sis are very dan­ger­ous for anti-cor­rup­tion ef­forts and very dan­ger­ous for democ­racy be­cause lead­ers use them to jus­tify power grabs. I think that’s what’s hap­pen­ing here.”

At the State Depart­ment and other large agen­cies, in­spec­tors gen­eral do not have fixed terms once they are con­firmed by the Se­nate. Although they serve at the plea­sure of the pres­i­dent, they have not tra­di­tion­ally been treated as po­lit­i­cal appointees and there­fore oc­cupy a murky space.

Some State Depart­ment of­fi­cials have ques­tioned the slow speed of in­quiries con­ducted by Linick, and the lack of in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the treat­ment of Yo­vanovitch, the ca­reer am­bas­sador who Trump fired last year.

But many of the of­fice’s probes have been sharply crit­i­cal. An Au­gust 2019 re­port con­cluded that the lead­er­ship of the State Depart­ment’s Bureau of In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion Af­fairs mis­treated and ha­rassed staffers, ac­cused them of po­lit­i­cal dis­loy­alty to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and re­tal­i­ated against them.

A sec­ond re­port, is­sued last Novem­ber, found that a civil ser­vice em­ployee re­lieved of her job as an ex­pert on Iran and the Per­sian Gulf in the of­fice of pol­icy plan­ning had been tar­geted in part be­cause she was of Ira­nian de­scent, as well as for her work dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — in­clud­ing on the Iran nu­clear deal — and ru­mors that she had shed tears at Trump’s elec­tion.

In Jan­uary, an in­spec­tor gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the U.S. Em­bassy in Helsinki found that Trump-ap­pointed Am­bas­sador Robert Pence, and the ca­reer For­eign Ser­vice of­fi­cer who served as sec­ond-in-com­mand, “did not man­age con­flict be­tween them in an ap­pro­pri­ate man­ner, which re­sulted in a break­down of trust and com­mu­ni­ca­tion that com­pli­cated the chain of com­mand and con­trib­uted to a stress­ful work en­vi­ron­ment” for staff. Pence, a Vir­ginia real es­tate de­vel­oper and Repub­li­can donor, has no re­la­tion to the vice pres­i­dent.

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