Four US State Department aides subpoenaed in investigation into watchdog firing

By on 05/08/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
State Department aides have been accused of interfering in accountability processes in a bid to protect Mike Pompeo. (Photo by Ronny Przysucha, courtesy State Department via flickr).

House Democrats have subpoenaed four senior aides to secretary of state Mike Pompeo, accusing them of stonewalling an investigation into president Trump’s firing of State Department inspector general Steve Linick.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee issued the subpoenas to Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary of state for management, deputy assistant secretary of state Mike Miller, former deputy assistant secretary of state Marik String and senior adviser Toni Porter on Monday. It said they were resisting being interviewed as part of the investigation into Linick’s firing in May.

Linick’s dismissal raised concerns among both Republican and Democrat lawmakers after it was revealed that he had opened a probe into Pompeo’s stewardship of an $8bn arms sale to Saudi Arabia shortly before he was ousted. Linick had also been investigating allegations that Pompeo had misused department funds by asking a political appointee to run errands for him and his wife.

Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said at the time that Linick’s sacking “is the outrageous act of a president trying to protect one of his most loyal supporters, the secretary of state, from accountability” and that it appeared to be an “unlawful act of retaliation”.

Pompeo confirmed in an interview with The Washington Post that he asked the president to fire Linick, but said he did so because “Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to” and claimed that he had not known about Linick’s investigation into his alleged misconduct. Trump initially said that he had lost confidence in Linick but admitted later that he knew little about the department watchdog’s work.

Interviews delayed

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs and House Oversight and Government Reform committees in June, Linick said Bulatao had attempted to bully him into dropping the investigations into Pompeo. Democrats said the other three aides were aware of the circumstances of Linick’s departure or of the two investigations that raised questions about Pompeo’s actions.

Bulatao had been expected to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee for questioning on 2 July but on the eve of his testimony the State Department requested a delay to review the recently completed inspector general’s report on the Saudi arms sale. Democrats agreed to this and to postpone the other aides’ appearances until after Bulatao’s. However, the committee deemed the month delay too long, leading it to issue the subpoenas.

‘Refusing to engage in good faith’

In a joint statement issued on Monday, Engel, House Oversight chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said the administration “continues to cover up the real reasons for Mr. Linick’s firing by stonewalling the Committees’ investigation and refusing to engage in good faith. That stonewalling has made today’s subpoenas necessary.”

The State Department issued a statement calling claims of stonewalling “outrageous”.

“The department has been offering good faith proposals to satisfy their oversight inquiry since May 28, 2020,” a department spokesperson said. “Related to this inquiry regarding Steve Linick, we have offered a briefing, an open hearing before both House Committees with the Under Secretary for Management, a briefing for Members on the Office of the Inspector General’s review of the implementation of the Arms Export Control Act, and we have provided a very clear path for every individual requested to engage with the Committees. All of the offers have been rejected, manipulated by the Committees, or outright ignored.”

State Department aides have denied that Pompeo or Bulatao acted improperly. Pompeo, Bulatao, and others have said Linick was dismissed in part because of the alleged leak of one of his office’s reports into accusations of political reprisals by Trump appointees against career State Department officials. Linick denied his office was responsible for the leak and said an investigation by the defence department inspector general cleared him and his office.

Whistleblower complaint

In another development, The New York Times reported last month that a State Department employee who reported witnessing Pompeo misusing taxpayer resources as well as hearing “numerous firsthand accounts” of such behaviour was blocked from further addressing the issue by top department officials who were protecting Pompeo, according to a newly available public copy of the employee’s whistleblower complaint.

Linick is one of three inspectors general to have been dismissed by Trump in recent months. In May, the president moved to replace Christi A. Grimm, the acting inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, who had highlighted supply shortages and coronavirus testing delays at hospitals across the country. And in April, he fired the Intelligence Community inspector general Michael Atkinson who had alerted Congress to security service concerns over Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president that led to his impeachment and acquittal.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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