Trump fired top State Department watchdog over probe into Saudi arms sales, lawmakers say

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President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington.

President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump may have fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick because he was investigating U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia, Democratic lawmakers said on Monday, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he sought Linick's removal because his work was undermining the department.

Trump announced the planned removal of Linick in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi late on Friday. He was the fourth government inspector general that the Republican president has ousted in recent weeks.

Pompeo told the Washington Post in an interview that he had asked Trump to fire Linick, while declining to describe specific concerns. Pompeo said no reason had to be given, a statement that contradicted members of Congress' interpretation of the inspector general law.

"Just like every presidentially confirmed position, I can terminate them. They serve at his pleasure for any reason or no reason," Pompeo told the newspaper.

“I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department," Pompeo said.

Another State official also told the Post that concern over Linick had grown because of leaks to the news media about investigations, although there was no evidence Linick was responsible for the leaks.

Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member on Senate Foreign Relations, said Linick had been investigating Trump's declaration of a national emergency last year to clear the way for $8 billion in military sales, mostly to Saudi Arabia.

Engel and Menendez announced on Saturday they were launching an investigation of Linick's firing. On Monday, Engel disclosed Linick's probe into the Saudi arms sales.

"I have learned that there may be another reason for Mr. Linick’s firing. His office was investigating - at my request - Trump’s phony declaration of an emergency so he could send weapons to Saudi Arabia," Engel said in a statement.

"We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary (Mike) Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed," he said, calling on the administration to comply with the probe and turn over records by Friday.

The White House, State Department and Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to questions about Engel's statement, first reported by the Washington Post.

Congressional aides had also said Linick was investigating whether Pompeo misused a taxpayer-funded political appointee to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife, such as walking their dog.

Republicans also have questions

Trump infuriated many members of Congress last May, including some fellow Republicans, by declaring a national emergency related to tensions with Iran in order to sidestep Congressional review and push ahead with $8 billion in military sales, mostly to Saudi Arabia.

The House and Senate both passed resolutions to block the sales. But Trump, a staunch promoter of both U.S. arms sales and the relationship with Saudi Arabia, vetoed them, and there was not enough support in the Republican-led Senate to override.

Menendez said he believed Linick was close to coming to a conclusion in his investigation of the arms sales.

"There's a lot here that the inspector general was obviously renewing and in the totality, it's an alarming circumstance," Menendez said on MSNBC.

Some Republicans also expressed concern.

Senator Chuck Grassley wrote to Trump and renewed his call for a detailed written explanation for terminating the inspectors general.

Representative Michael McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee, was looking into the matter, a spokeswoman said.

"The State Department Inspector General performs essential oversight of the department, so it raises questions when one is removed," said Leslie Shedd, spokeswoman for the committee Republicans.

Trump replaced Linick with Stephen Akard, the official in charge of the Office of Foreign Missions who is considered a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence.

U.S. law allows a president to remove inspector generals, who act as watchdogs to expose waste or improper activities within government agencies.

Explaining Linick's firing to Pelosi, Trump said only that he no longer had "fullest confidence" in Linick.