Fired watchdog tells Congress he informed top officials about probe into Pompeo and wife

WASHINGTON – Fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick told Congress in a private interview Wednesday that before he was ousted, he had informed at least three top aides to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he was reviewing Pompeo and his wife’s use of government resources, two U.S. lawmakers told NBC News.

The revelation potentially undercuts Pompeo’s claim to have been unaware that Linick was looking into that issue when he asked President Donald Trump to fire Linick.

Pompeo has said Linick’s firing couldn’t have been retaliation because he had “no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the Inspector General’s Office.”

State Department Inspector Genreal Steve Linick departs the Capitol on Oct. 2, 2019.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

But Linick told congressional committees investigating his ouster that months earlier, he had told Undersecretary of State Brian Bulatao, Executive Secretary Lisa Kenna, and Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun about what Linick described as a “review of use of resources by Pompeo and his wife,” according to one of the lawmakers who participated in the interview.

Linick also told Congress that before he was fired, he had also submitted a formal document request for records related to Pompeo and his wife’s use of resources. Document requests are a standard element of an investigation by an inspector general, a federal agency’s independent watchdog.

Linick, who was questioned in a daylong virtual interview by three House and Senate committees, told Congress he did not have specific knowledge of whether those aides had relayed the information to Pompeo, the lawmakers said.

But the three officials whom Linick said he did inform about the review represent Pompeo’s innermost circle at the State Department, where they work with Pompeo in the famed executive suite known as the 7th Floor. Bulatao has been a close friend of Pompeo’s since they attended West Point together more than 30 years ago, and was made the CIA’s chief operating officer when Pompeo ran the spy agency.

The document request, which undoubtedly would have involved records from the secretary’s office, is another reason it’s implausible Pompeo never heard about the review, said the lawmakers who took part in the interview.

“No reasonable person would believe Pompeo’s statement,” one of them said.

The State Department and the Office of the Inspector General didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Before being fired, NBC News first reported, Linick had been looking at whether Pompeo made a State Department staffer walk his dog, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations for Pompeo and his wife, among other personal errands.

Linick was also looking into allegations about leadership problems at the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol. That office was responsible for overseeing a series of lavish dinners hosted by Pompeo and revealed by NBC News that is also now the subject of a congressional inquiry.

Both lawmakers said Linick’s comments are likely to prompt one or more congressional committees to subpoena Bulatao and other top State Department officials as they investigate whether Pompeo had Linick fired in retaliation for investigations Linick was pursuing involving the secretary.

“There’s more information we need,” one of the lawmakers said. “If we are unable to obtain it voluntarily, it should be subpoenaed.”

The three committees – the House and Senate’s foreign policy committee, and the House’s oversight panel – have already requested that Bulatao, Kenna and several other top Pompeo aides voluntarily answer questions from Congress. So far, none has agreed.

“We’re grateful for Mr. Linick’s decades of service to our country and for having the courage to come forward and discuss his sudden and unjustified firing,” the chairs of the House committees and the top Democrat on the Senate’s foreign relations panel said.

In a joint, written statement after the interview, those lawmakers said that Linick had testified that Bulatao, the longtime Pompeo friend and adviser, had tried to “bully” the inspector general repeatedly – including telling Linick that it was inappropriate to pursue a separate investigation into a Saudi arms deal.

Linick rejected the administration’s explanations for why he was terminated, according to the committees’ joint statement, stating: “I have not heard any valid reason that would justify my removal.”

Linick also told Congress that public explanations by Pompeo and others were “either misplaced or unfounded,” the committees said, quoting Linick’s comments during the interview.

Pompeo has repeatedly declined to provide any specific reason why he asked Trump to fire Linick in mid-May, other than to say Linick was not performing well and was undermining the State Department’s objectives.

“There are claims that this was for a retaliation for some investigation that the inspector general’s office here was engaged in,” Pompeo said last month. “It’s patently false. I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general’s office. It’s all crazy stuff.”

Pompeo said the only exception was one Linick investigation he became aware of earlier in the year when he’d answered written questions from the inspector general. Pompeo did not elaborate and said he didn’t know what had happened with that probe.

NBC News and other news organizations have reported that Pompeo answered written questions from Linick about a Saudi arms deal that Linick was investigating, after Pompeo declined the inspector general’s request to interview him. That investigation had been requested by the House Foreign Affairs Committee after Pompeo and the Trump administration circumvented Congress by declaring an emergency to enable an arms sale to the Saudis that lawmakers of both parties opposed.

The lawmakers who participated in the Wednesday session said Linick was cautious in the interview, refusing to disclose specifics about allegations his office had been investigating and declining to speculate or answer questions he felt went beyond the facts he was in a position to know.

Haley Talbot and Abigail Williams contributed.