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Fired watchdog was investigating Trump administration arms sales to Saudi Arabia

POLITICO logo POLITICO 5/18/2020 By Andrew Desiderio
a man wearing a suit and tie: Former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. © J. Scott Applewhite, File/AP Photo Former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.

The State Department inspector general who was fired by President Donald Trump late Friday night was investigating the president’s effort to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval, according to the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The revelation adds another layer to Trump’s decision to sack Steve Linick, who was also looking into claims that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife improperly directed political appointees to run personal errands for him, including walking his dog and picking up his dry cleaning.

“[Linick’s] office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement to POLITICO. “We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.”

Engel’s panel swiftly launched an investigation into Linick’s firing over the weekend alongside New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The lawmakers have demanded that the White House, the State Department, and the inspector general’s office turn over all documents related to Linick’s firing by Friday.

Trump’s decision to fire Linick immediately drew allegations from Democrats that the president was seeking to quash accountability and was continuing his purge of independent inspectors general viewed as insufficiently loyal to him.

A congressional aide said State Department officials were recently briefed about Linick’s conclusions in his investigation of the Saudi arms sales, and that Pompeo refused to sit for an interview with the inspector general’s office. State Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The president came under intense scrutiny last year for declaring a national emergency in order to sell weapons to the kingdom, a move intended to sidestep approval from Capitol Hill. Current law requires the executive branch to formally notify Congress of an intent to sell weapons to a foreign country, at which point the House and Senate have 30 days to vote to halt the sale.

At the time, it was seen as highly unlikely that Congress would approve billions in new arms sales to Riyadh in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which prompted lawmakers of both parties to oppose further cooperation between the two countries and to urge the Trump administration to exact strict penalties on the Saudi government.

Other lawmakers had grown wary of the U.S.-Saudi relationship amid Riyadh’s continued participation in Yemen’s devastating civil war. The U.S. has been supporting the Saudi effort, and Trump last year vetoed a War Powers resolution intended to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition.

In his official notification to Congress on Friday night, Trump said he no longer had confidence in Linick but declined to further elaborate. Some Republican senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have called on Trump to fully comply with statutes requiring the president to give Congress a more complete explanation for the firing, arguing that a vague loss of confidence is not sufficient.

Trump took a similar path when he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, last month. Grassley and a bipartisan group of senators wrote a letter to Trump demanding a more detailed explanation, but the president has yet to respond to the lawmakers.

A White House official said over the weekend that Pompeo had requested that the president fire Linick.

Members of Linick's staff have been stunned by his abrupt firing and trying to piece things together in the days since.

Linick held a virtual town hall for his staffers on Friday morning, and there was no indication whatsoever that he knew he was about to be sidelined, one staffer said.

Nahal Toosi contributed to this story.

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