WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Wednesday detailed their suspicions that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a small group of loyalists orchestrated the spring firing of the agency's inspector general, as he was investigating Pompeo's personal conduct, and then attempted a cover-up.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with three top State Department officials close to Pompeo, including Undersecretary for Management Brian Bulatao, was months in the making.
"We should have been able to do this a few months ago and not with the acrimony that we've experienced," said Chairman Eliot L. Engel, who lost the Democratic primary for his New York district this summer. Extracting information from a seemingly recalcitrant State Department "has not been the most pleasant way to bring my three-decade career to a close," he added.
President Donald Trump fired the inspector general, Steve Linick, in May at the direct request of Pompeo, who has repeatedly claimed he did not know then that Linick was investigating him and his wife, Susan, for alleged misuse of department resources.
Pompeo, who previously served as CIA director, was aware, however, that Linick was examining the secretary's spring 2019 emergency declaration on Iran, which allowed him to bypass mandatory congressional review of billions of dollars in proposed weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Democrats had been holding up the $8 billion weapons package over concerns those arms would contribute to further death and devastation in Yemen.
The IG report, released last month, into Pompeo's emergency declaration concluded the department had failed to fully assess or mitigate the risk to civilian lives of the arm sales.
At the time of Linick's firing, Bulatao, a longtime personal friend of Pompeo, in an interview with The Washington Post accused Linick of a lax investigation into a news leak late last year involving a draft IG report critical of Trump's special envoy for Iran matters, Brian Hook. Hook was found to have illegally discriminated against a career employee because of her Iranian American background.
Rather than take corrective actions against Hook, who has yet to be punished, Pompeo and Bulatao focused their attentions on the Office of the Inspector General, which they suspected leaked the information.
Engel, however, was dubious.
"Did Mr. Pompeo fire his agency's independent watchdog because of the way he handled the investigation into unproven allegations of a leak in the OIG?" the chairman asked. "Or did Mr. Pompeo fire him because he was getting closer and closer to matters that were embarrassing for Mr. Pompeo and his family, matters that implicated the State Department in a scheme to bypass Congress and sell lethal weapons that might be used for war crimes?"
Bulatao on Wednesday did not dwell on the leak. Rather, he criticized Linick for failing to complete on time a mandatory fiscal 2019 audit of the State Department's financial statements.
Bulatao, who previously served as Pompeo's chief operating officer at the CIA, said the missed deadline was such a "critical and deeply disturbing failure" that it put U.S. national security "at considerable risk" and merited a classified briefing after the hearing.
Bulatao also said employee surveys showed substantially lower morale at OIG compared to the broader department.
Rep. Brad Sherman, who is campaigning to succeed Engel as chairman next Congress if Democrats maintain control of the House, pointed out that multiple other U.S. agencies — most infamously the Pentagon — fail to complete their required audits on time and yet their top officials are not fired. A 1990 law required all federal agencies to audit their books each year, but the Defense Department performed just its second audit last year.
"The State Department being a few weeks late with its audit is tiny compared to other agencies being late or nonexistent with their audit reports," said Sherman, D-Calif.
Sherman also argued that Pompeo, who has seen many employees resign and interest in joining the Foreign Service fall, should be held accountable for morale within the department.
"If you had any integrity you would also be calling for the resignation of Secretary Pompeo," Sherman said. "All of us in this room know what morale is like in his department."
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., who is also competing for the committee gavel, accused Bulatao of engaging in a cover-up.
"The IG was doing his job and he was stopped by you, the secretary of State and the president of the United States," he said.
Republican lawmakers pointed to the importance of maintaining independent IGs and ensuring proper congressional oversight. But they spent most of the hearing supporting Bulatao's criticisms of Linick.
Committee Republicans also defended the 2019 arm sales to Gulf countries and praised the Trump administration for securing this week's normalization of relations agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., speculated that had Linick not been fired, the committee might be investigating the delayed audit.
"We need this committee hopefully after the election to go back to focusing on big, important things going on around the world," Kinzinger said.
Panel Republicans did not engage with or attempt to defend the allegations — some of which department officials have confirmed in testimony — that Pompeo used his staff to run personal errands and department funding and other resources to host lavish dinners to further his connections to prominent conservative donors and conservative media figures.
"There is at the highest levels of this State Department a fundamental misunderstanding ... of the way our government is supposed to work, of the way public service is supposed to work," Engel said. "It explains why Mr. Pompeo is potentially facing contempt in this body in which he used to serve. I still hope we'll find a way to avoid that, but we'll have to see what happens."