Trump firing the State Department watchdog is about more than Mike Pompeo's takeout habits

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On Friday night, President Trump announced that he would be firing Steve Linick, the inspector general for the State Department. According to The New York Times, this decision was the result of pressure from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was reportedly under investigation by Linick for the misuse of taxpayer funds. Pompeo was reportedly under investigation for several different things; according to NBC, Linick was looking into Pompeo’s decision to allow billions of dollars in sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite Congress attempting to block the decision. Furthermore, Pompeo was allegedly sending a taxpayer-funded staffer to perform personal errands, like picking up dry cleaning and walking his dog.

This isn’t the first time Pompeo has faced troubling allegations of using taxpayer-funded government employees as personal servants. In January 2019, various diplomats complained to reporters about the fact that Pompeo’s wife had joined him for a jaunt around the Middle East — despite the fact that the government was shut down at the time, forcing support staff for Pompeo’s wife’s unnecessary trip to work unpaid. In October 2019, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) asked that a special counsel be appointed to investigate Pompeo’s use of State Department planes to travel back and forth to Kansas, his home state, apparently in preparation for a possible run for Senate.

Finally, last year, a whistleblower complained that Pompeo had used his own security guards to pick up takeout meals and take his dog to a groomer — which match exactly the allegations Linick was reportedly investigating.

When the news first broke about Linick’s firing, much of the media focused on the dog-walking allegations as the likely impetus. While scandalous in the specific way of taxpayer-funded superfluousness, this seems like a relatively petty reason for Trump to make a move as likely to generate negative headlines as firing an inspector general. After all, Pompeo easily weathered the prior reports about this behavior without the story breaking through on a national scale. So what could have prompted Trump to take such a dramatic step?

“I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement to The Washington Post on Monday. “His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia.”

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The emergency declaration in question dates back to last May, when Trump and Pompeo orchestrated a sale of $8.1 billion in arms to Saudia Arabia. "These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said in a statement to CNN at the time.

Congress has been deeply skeptical of weapons sales to the Middle East kingdom, which has been accused of extensive human rights abuses in its ongoing war in Yemen. After Congress voted to block the sale of arms, Trump used an emergency declaration to bypass legislative oversight. When questions arose about what exactly the emergency was, Pompeo sent a letter to Congress arguing that there was, in fact, a pressing need to send Saudia Arabia the weapons immediately.

In the letter, obtained by CNN, Pompeo wrote that he had "determined that an emergency exists, which requires the immediate sale of the defense articles and defense services [to Saudi Arabia] in order to deter further the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region."

If Engel is correct, then Linick seems to have been investigating the veracity of Pompeo’s claim. While it’s less of a juicy gossip item than dog-walkers and dinner reservations, it’s potentially a far more damaging abuse of government funds and power.

Pompeo told The Washington Post in an interview Monday that he did recommend Linick's firing to Trump, but only because the watchdog was "undermining" State Department work. Pompeo "declined to describe specific concerns," per the Post, but did tell the newspaper that he was not aware that Linick was investigating his alleged improper deployment of government aides on personal errands, and thus that Linick's firing was not a retaliatory move.

Engel and Menendez are now leading the charge in Congress to investigate whether Trump improperly fired Linick. In a joint statement, they said that they will investigate if the firing was used to protect Pompeo, which they argue “would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions.”

Linick is the latest inspector general to be fired by Trump over the past few months, in what many are calling a purge of the very officials designed to keep the White House in line. So far in his presidency, Trump has fired four inspectors general.

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