The US state department inspector-general fired late last week was investigating the Trump administration’s decision to bypass Congress and fast-track a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a senior Democrat has claimed.
Eliot Engel, the Democratic congressman from New York and chair of the House foreign relations committee, said on Monday that the arms sale “may be another reason” for the US president’s abrupt sacking of Steve Linick, inspector-general of the US Department of State.
Notifying Congress of his decision late on Friday night, Mr Trump said he no longer had “the fullest confidence” in the federal watchdog. A senior White House official said at the weekend that Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, recommended the move, and Mr Trump agreed.
But Mr Trump denied knowing Mr Linick on Monday, telling reporters at the White House: “I don’t know him at all. I never even heard of him, but I was asked to by the state department, by Mike [Pompeo].”
Mr Trump added that he had the “absolute right, as president, to terminate” an inspector-general, even though the president is legally required to provide Congress with reasons for removing a watchdog.
Mr Engel said the inspector-general had been investigating Mr Pompeo, and US media later reported that Mr Linick had been looking into allegations that the secretary of state had a government staffer handle personal chores for him, such as collecting dry cleaning, walking his dog and making restaurant reservations.
“His office was investigating — at my request — Trump’s phony emergency declaration so he could send Saudi Arabia weapons,” Mr Engel said on Twitter. “We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Sec Pompeo wanted Linick pushed out.”
Mr Pompeo defended his actions on Monday, telling the Washington Post: “I went to the president and made clear to him that inspector-general Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department, very consistent with what the statute says he’s supposed to be doing.”
Nearly one year ago, Mr Pompeo bypassed Congress and invoked rarely used emergency powers to allow the US to proceed with 22 sales of planned precision bombs worth $8.1bn to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, citing the rising security threat from Iran.
Mr Engel’s latest comments will put more pressure on the Trump administration to explain its decision to sack Mr Linick, after Democrats and Republicans alike objected at the weekend.
Mr Engel and Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, have launched a formal probe into Mr Linick’s firing, soliciting documents from the White House, state department and inspector-general’s office.
Republicans have also been critical of the president’s decision. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate finance committee, and Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, called on Mr Trump at the weekend to provide Congress with more information about why he fired Mr Linick. On Monday, Mr Grassley also wrote to the president, requesting “detailed reasoning” for the decision.
Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, said Mr Trump’s firings of multiple inspectors-general were “unprecedented” and “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,” he added.
Last month, Mr Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector-general, who had a key role in impeachment proceedings against the US president last year. Mr Atkinson told lawmakers about a whistleblower complaint regarding the president’s dealings with Ukraine, which sparked the impeachment probe.