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Mike Pompeo offers another defense in his IG controversy — then immediately undercuts it

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/20/2020 Aaron Blake

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued his latest comments Wednesday in the growing controversy over his recommendation that President Trump fire an inspector general who has been investigating Pompeo.

Pompeo’s defense basically boiled down to this: It couldn’t possibly have been retaliation, because I didn’t know what he was investigating.

Except then Pompeo acknowledged that he might well have known that he was under investigation. And his explanation glosses over other ways in which the firing could have been retaliatory.

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Pompeo in his comments said that he should have pushed for Inspector General Steve Linick’s removal “some time ago.” Then he laid out his case for why this isn’t problematic.

“I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general’s office,” Pompeo said. “I couldn’t possibly have retaliated for all the things I’ve seen — the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. It’s all just crazy.”

Pompeo’s summary of what Linick was investigating was clearly meant in jest and dismissively. He lumped Linick’s probe of Pompeo allegedly using State Department staff for personal errands with a separate probe of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia that Pompeo approved.

“I didn’t have access to that information,” Pompeo said, “so I couldn’t possibly have retaliated.”

Except then, in almost the same breath, Pompeo admitted he knew about Linick’s probe of the arms deal the Trump administration struck with Saudi Arabia. That’s a deal in which Linick was examining whether it illegally bypassed a congressional block on arms sales to the country. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Pompeo had declined an interview in the probe but instead offered written responses to Linick’s questions.

“There’s one exception: I was asked a series of questions in writing,” Pompeo said. “I responded to those questions with respect to a particular investigation. … I don’t know the scope. I don’t know the nature of that investigation — of what I would have seen from the nature of the questions that I was presented.”

That’s a pretty substantial caveat. Pompeo one moment says he had “no sense of what investigations were taking place,” and then acknowledged he did in fact know about one of the two big ones.

Pompeo insisted that he did not glean clues about the thrust of the investigation based on the questions received, but it’s difficult to believe they didn’t involve probing his personal actions and knowledge — given that would be the only real perspective he could offer. And if, in fact, Pompeo might be worried about anything related to that arms deal, he wouldn’t even need to know specifically what Linick was after; the presence of the investigation itself would be enough.

That doesn’t mean Linick was indeed targeting Pompeo in the probe. But Pompeo’s suggestion that he couldn’t possibly retaliate because he would have had no idea about the scope of that investigation is pretty difficult to swallow. When an inspector general probes something controversial — as the Saudi arms deal was, so much so that Congress tried to block it — it doesn’t take a legal expert to deduce that trouble might lie ahead.

And then there are the other investigations. Retaliation doesn’t just mean for something that involves Pompeo personally; it’s also possible it could be for something that makes the broader State Department, the broader administration or White House look bad.

And that could certainly be deduced not just from the Saudi arms deal probe, but also from a pair of reports Linick issued last year. One of them alleged harassment by top State Department officials and that employees were politically targeted. Another involved an ally of White House senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

In other words, Linick’s history of issuing tough reports was no secret. Even if we take Pompeo at his word that he didn’t know about the probe involving staff doing personal errands, that doesn’t erase all these other things Pompeo knew about — and for which Linick’s firing could logically be construed as retaliatory. (There’s also the fact that Trump has made pretty clear that two other removals of inspectors general were indeed retaliatory.)

So the idea that this couldn’t possibly have been retaliatory just doesn’t hold up. That doesn’t mean it’s a scandal; it just means Pompeo’s defense remains rather suspect.


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