WASHINGTON - Top State Department aides Wednesday defended President Donald Trump's firing of State Department Inspector General (IG) Steve Linick earlier this year, telling lawmakers the decision was within the White House's executive authority.
"The IG's removal was not about retaliation on any specific report or investigation," Brian Bulatao, State Department undersecretary of management, told lawmakers.
But congressional Democrats allege Linick's firing was connected to two investigations his office was conducting into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's conduct.
The first investigation involved Pompeo's emergency declaration that allowed the Trump administration to circumvent the U.S. Congress to approve $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Congressional Democrats expressed concern the arms would be used against civilians in the war in Yemen.
"Many of us here in Congress saw the situation on the ground in Yemen and said, 'Enough.' We thought that before we shipped instruments of death overseas, adequate precautions should be in place to ensure those instruments would not be used to blow up school buses or funeral processions. We did not want the United States to be party to the slaughter of innocents," House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel said during a hearing on the matter.
The IG's report found Pompeo's emergency declaration did "not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns associated with the transfer of PGMs (precision guided munitions) included in the Secretary's May 2019 emergency certification."
Last week, Engel released internal documents from July that showed State Department officials asked the IG's office to remove passages of the report expressing concerns about civilian casualties.
Pompeo was also facing ethics concerns related to dinner parties he and his wife held at his home that he has said were related to his work at the State Department. Congressional Democrats noted that State Department officials were not present at the gatherings, saying the guest list appears related to the Secretary of State's domestic political ambitions.
Republicans defended Trump's decision to fire Linick as an example of his executive power.
"The news of Inspector General Linick's firing did come as a surprise," Congressman Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday. "Inspectors general are an essential tool in helping Congress execute its constitutional oversight of the executive branch, and any time one is terminated, it naturally will raise some questions. However, inspectors general, like other officers in the executive branch, do serve at the pleasure of the president."
State Department aides say Linick was fired for numerous examples of poor job performance, including leaking information to the press, sending sensitive information to his personal email address and for failing to complete a timely audit of State Department financial procedures.
"His failures were substantial and numerous, and fell into three broad categories - failure to execute on the core mission of the IG, failure to take care of the IG team and failure to lead with integrity," Bulatao told lawmakers.
Engel said he presumed the IG's office was still investigating the concerns about Pompeo. Linick was one of five inspectors general fired earlier this spring.