Trump's fourth inspector general firing generates new inquiry

Trump has now fired four inspectors general in six weeks, though the latest, targeting the State Department's IG, might be the worst.
Image: US-HEALTH-VIRUS-BRIEFING
Secretary of States Mike Pompeo watches President Donald Trump speak during the daily briefing on the coronavirus at the White House on April 8, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

The key to understanding Friday night news dumps is acknowledging the motivation behind them. No one ever waits until 10 p.m. on a Friday to release information they want the public to see; they wait until then to bury the information. Friday night news dumps come with an unsubtle -- but unstated -- degree of shame and embarrassment: those executing the dump fear scrutiny and sunlight because they know the underlying actions are tough to defend.

With this in mind, for the third time in six weeks, Donald Trump waited until late on a Friday night to oust an inspector general who hadn't done anything wrong. This incident, however, is among the most offensive to date.

President Donald Trump on Friday removed a watchdog critical of personnel moves in the State Department. Trump informed Congress of the move in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in which he gave no specific reason for firing State Department Inspector General Steve Linick. Trump wrote he "no longer" had full confidence in the State Department's inspector general.

Linick was replaced with Stephen Akard, who's been described as "a trusted ally of Vice President Pence."

For those keeping score, it was late on a Friday in early April when Trump fired the IG for the intelligence community. A few days later, the Republican ousted the IG helping oversee the $2.2 trillion economic aid initiative. Late on a Friday on May 1, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services was shown the door -- not for poor performance, but for having the audacity to do her job properly and present the administration with information the president found politically inconvenient.

The New York Times recently reported that the White House appears to be engaged in a "power play against semi-independent inspectors general across the government," driven by the president's "impatience with independent voices within the government that he considers disloyal." The Washington Post's David Ignatius similarly called out Trump for launching "a relentless campaign -- waged even in the midst of the pandemic -- against people and institutions that can hold him accountable."

And these assessments came before the president fired his fourth IG in six weeks.

But what makes Steve Linick's ouster from the State Department especially notable were the circumstances behind the decision. According to the White House, Trump fired Linick at the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was a curious thing for the West Wing to acknowledge.

Friday night's firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick came as he "was looking into the Secretary's misuse of a political appointee at the Department to perform personal tasks for himself and Mrs. Pompeo," a Democratic aide told NBC News. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said Friday that he learned Linick "had opened an investigation into Pompeo."

Specifically, Linick was reportedly examining whether Pompeo "made a staffer walk his dog, pick up his dry cleaning and make dinner reservations for Pompeo and his wife, among other personal errands, according to two congressional officials assigned to different committees."

In other words, if these claims are correct, a powerful cabinet secretary was accused of misusing official resources; he faced an investigation; and he urged the president to fire the investigator. Trump, whose unfortunate record on corruption is well documented, apparently had no qualms about doing as Pompeo requested.

Two weeks ago, the president told Fox News, "I learned a lot from Richard Nixon: Don't fire people." In reality, Nixon fired those who believed in accountability, and now Trump is doing the exact same thing.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, announced over the weekend that they intend to investigate Linick's removal. In fact, the two lawmakers directed the White House and the State Department to "preserve all records related to the firing," and asked the materials be delivered to Congress by Friday, May 22.

Will these efforts have bipartisan backing? We'll explore that in more detail a little later this morning.

Postscript: On Friday, the Democratic-led House approved the latest economic aid package, called the HEROES Act, which included a provision intended to make it more difficult for the White House to fire inspectors general. The bill faces fierce Republican opposition and has no realistic chance of success.