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Pompeo aide tried to ‘bully’ ex-State Department watchdog and stop probe in Saudi arms deal, Dems say

  • June 04, 2020

WASHINGTON – A top adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tried to derail an investigation into a controversial $8 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the agency’s ousted federal watchdog told lawmakers on Wednesday. 

During closed-door testimony, Steve Linick, who was removed as the State Department’s inspector general last month, told lawmakers that Brian Bulatao – one of Pompeo’s closest aides – tried to “bully” the IG on several occasions, according to Democrats who are leading an investigation into Linick’s removal. 

“Mr. Linick testified that Mr. Bulatao pressured him to act in ways that Mr. Linick felt were inappropriate – including Bulatao telling Linick that the investigation into weapons sales to Saudi Arabia was not a matter for the IG to investigate,” Democrats said in a statement after Linick’s closed-door testimony. 

Linick told lawmakers that his office had requested an interview with Pompeo as part of the inquiry into the Saudi arms sale, but Pompeo refused after the IG insisted that a witness from his office be present. Pompeo gave Linick’s office written answers to questions instead. 

The $8 billion weapons deal created a bipartisan firestorm in 2019. Pompeo bypassed lawmakers who objected to the sale, citing an “emergency” provision of a 1976 arms control law that allowed the administration to go around Congress. The weapons fueled the horrific war in Yemen, which pitted the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates against rebels backed by Iran.      

Linick testified that Bulatao and Marik String – who was named acting State Department legal adviser the same day of Pompeo’s “emergency” declaration – argued that his office should not pursue an investigation into the arms sale. 

“We still have many unanswered questions, and today’s testimony makes it all the more critical that the administration immediately comply with outstanding requests for additional witness interviews and documents,” said the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, in a joint statement with other Democrats leading the probe.

The Democrats said Linick also confirmed that his office was investigating allegations that Pompeo used a State Department employee to run personal errands for him and his wife, Susan Pompeo.

Democrats have accused Pompeo of seeking Linick’s removal to shield himself from those investigations. Pompeo has rejected that charge and said Linick’s firing was not retaliatory. 

“All we’ve done is simply make sure that in respect to the inspector general that we had an inspector general that was working towards the mission of the United States Department of State and the foreign policy of Donald Trump,” Pompeo said in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday. 

At Pompeo’s urging, President Donald Trump’s notified Congress on May 15 of his plan to fire Linick. Trump said then that he had he had lost confidence in Linick.

Linick’s interview – part of a joint probe by the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committee and Democrats on the Senate foreign affairs panel – was conducted remotely because of coronavirus restrictions. 

According to Democrats, Linick said he was “shocked” when he found out he was being fired. He disputed the administration’s justifications for his removal as “either misplaced or unfounded.” 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference on China in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 29.

Linick has spent nearly three decades investigating waste and malfeasance inside federal government agencies, first at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and then at the State Department.

Linick is the first person to be interviewed in the congressional probe. Engel and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plan to speak with a half-dozen State Department officials who may have been involved in or had knowledge of discussions leading up to Linick’s ouster.

“President Trump’s unprecedented removal of Inspector General Linick is only his latest sacking of an inspector general, our government’s key independent watchdogs, from a federal agency,” the two lawmakers said in a statement after Trump notified Congress he was firing Linick.

Engel has expressed concern the two Pompeo-related investigations could be derailed by Linick’s successor, Stephen Akard.

Akard has no investigative or oversight experience and faces a slew of potential conflicts of interest, according to an internal State Department email, lawmakers and agency sources.  

Akard has another job at the State Department: director of the Office of Foreign Missions, a political appointment he’s held since 2019. In that job, which he plans to keep, Akard reports to Bulatao.

“I simply don’t understand how someone who reports to the Secretary of State can also be expected to act as an independent watchdog,” Engel said in a statement to USA TODAY last week.

“Ambassador Akard’s appointment makes it seem as though the Secretary is trying to hide something. I’m determined to make sure Mr. Akard doesn’t bury the investigations” conducted by the inspector general’s office, Engel said.

More:‘Lapdog’ or watchdog? The State Department’s new inspector general under fire for conflicts of interest, inexperience

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