On Friday night, President Donald Trump fired the State Department’s Inspector General Steve Linick in a troubling and potentially unlawful act. We previously discussed the President’s firing of then-Inspector General for the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson for his role in the whistleblower complaint that prompted the Ukraine probe — a move that I criticized. He also fired the inspector general overseeing pandemic relief, Glenn Fine. The firing of Linick when his office was reportedly investigating the alleged misuse of public resources by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is arguably in violation of federal law and in my view worthy of investigation by both houses. The Inspector General system plays a vital role in combatting corruption and abuse. The President’s actions against multiple inspectors general constitute one of the greatest challenges to that system since its founding.
Both the Democratic leaders in House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have indicated in the letter to the White House that they intend to investigate the action. The concern is magnified by reports that Pompeo requested the termination after Linick’s office began looking into the use of official travel and State Department personnel for personal tasks. Travel by Pompeo’s wife was reportedly part of the inquiry and the misuse of Diplomatic Security personnel, who protect US missions overseas as well as the secretary of state, had been assigned questionable tasks for the Pompeos such as picking up the family dog and takeout food.
The merits of the allegations are difficult to gauge. However, it is less likely that we will ever resolve the merits given the termination. Trump notified Congress in a letter that Linick was fired simply because he no longer had confidence in him. Federal law however requires more than a post hoc notice. The 2008 Inspector General Reform Act states:
(e) If an Inspector General is removed from office or is transferred to another position or location within a designated Federal entity, the head of the designated Federal entity shall communicate in writing the reasons for any such removal or transfer to both Houses of Congress, not later than 30 days before the removal or transfer. Nothing in this subsection shall prohibit a personnel action otherwise authorized by law, other than transfer or removal. (emphasis added)
The termination of Linick appears to have violated this federal provision, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, who says that the White House explanation is “not sufficient”. The letter does state that the termination would occur 30 days from May 15th so the violation may be viewed as technical in not first informing Congress. The White House may also argue that the notice provision only applies to confirmed not acting Inspectors General. However, there remains the question of a fourth IG being fired under controversial circumstances.
Trump is not the first to circumvent the system. In 2009, President Obama placed Americorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin into administrative leave and announced his planned termination on the same “lack of confidence” rationale. Notably, he was also fired after he investigated an ally of President Obama for misuse of federal funds. The acting United States Attorney in Sacramental was critical of Walpin who had referred the matter for possible criminal charges.
Notably, the person who actually fired him was later House impeachment counsel Norm Eisen who was the Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform. Walpin said “You can either resign, or I’ll tell you that we’ll have to terminate you.”
The Walpin case also however shows the difficulty in litigating these claims. He filed a lawsuit contesting the basis for his removal. His lawsuit was eventually dismissed after the chairman of the Integrity Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency simply claimed that an earlier response satisfied the statutory requirements.
Regardless of how one feels about President Trump, there should be unity on the question of the President following federal law and the need for an investigation. Even Sen. Grassley (Iowa, R.) has raised an alarm over this presidential action. Congress has ample oversight powers to demand answers from the White House, albeit on a belated basis. The problem is that the Administration knows it can run out the clock on any fight over subpoenas until after the election.
If Linick was fired for investigating Pompeo, Congress needs to act to address and deter such abuse. Alternatively, if the Administration had another reason for the termination, it will have to share it with the committees. In any case, the sudden termination of Lipnick violates federal law and, if left unaddressed, undermines the entire system of IG offices across the government.