It’s too soon to say for certain that President Donald Trump’s firing of State Department Inspector General Steve A. Linick was a politically motivated effort to stop Linick from doing his job, but the administration’s record of muzzling watchdogs inspires little confidence that his removal was appropriate.
After Trump fired Linick on Friday, saying that he had lost confidence in him, Democrats in Congress indicated that the inspector general had been investigating actions by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and that his firing might have been an illegal act of retaliation.
Initial reports of the firing focused on an investigation Linick was said to be conducting into Pompeo’s alleged use of employees to perform personal errands. (Pompeo told The Washington Post that he did not know Linick had been investigating him.) But on Monday, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Linick also was investigating — at Engel’s request — Trump’s declaration of an emergency last year to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia without congressional review.
During the current administration, Linick has criticized the State Department’s handling of personnel issues, accusing some of the president’s appointees of retaliating against career officials. Linick also played a peripheral role in Trump’s impeachment, turning over to House investigators documents apparently sent by the White House to the State Department that promoted conspiracy theories about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.
Emboldened by his acquittal in the Senate, Trump has engaged in a petulant purge of officials connected to his impeachment, including Michael Atkinson, the former inspector general of the intelligence community. Atkinson rightly had notified Congress about a whistleblower complaint he deemed urgent; it turned out to revolve around Trump’s outrageous attempt to have Ukraine investigate a prospective political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump also demoted Glenn Fine, the widely respected acting inspector general of the Defense Department and moved against Christi A. Grimm, the acting head of the inspector general’s office in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Even if it is established that Trump wrongly dismissed Linick, the president is unlikely to alter his behavior as long as congressional Republicans, with a few honorable exceptions such as Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, act as his apologists and enablers. The only sure remedy for Trump’s aversion to oversight is his removal by the watchdogs he should fear the most — the voters.