The State Department internal watchdog who was fired by President Donald Trump had nearly completed an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's approval of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia, NBC News reported Monday.
Investigators in Congress believe that probe contributed to Trump's decision – on Pompeo's recommendation – to remove State Department Inspector General Steve Linick from his post, two congressional officials told NBC.
Pompeo confirmed Monday that he asked Trump to fire Linick because his work was "undermining" the department's mission, but did not elaborate on any specific details. The nation's top diplomat said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post that Linick's dismissal was not retaliation by the administration.
"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, very consistent with what the statute says he's supposed to be doing," Pompeo said, adding that he did not know Linick was investigating him.
The Post's report on its interview with Pompeo did not mention Linick's probe of the administration's arms deal.
The Trump administration in mid-2019 issued an emergency declaration to push through an $8 billion-plus arms deal with the Saudi kingdom and the United Arab Emirates without congressional approval.
The Democrat-led House voted, mostly along party lines, to block the weapons sale. Trump vetoed the resolutions last July, and the GOP-held Senate failed in an attempt to override the veto.
Much of the opposition stemmed from the 2018 slaying in a Saudi Consulate in Turkey of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, as well as Saudi Arabia's military endeavors in Yemen. News outlets reported in late 2018 that the CIA found that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself had ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, citing people familiar with the matter. The crown prince has denied ordering the killing.
Trump's firing of Linick came in a surprise move Friday night. The president said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday that he had lost confidence in Linick, without providing further explanation.
On Saturday, a Democratic aide told NBC that Linick's removal might have been in response to an investigation into Pompeo's "misuse of a political appointee at the Department to perform personal tasks for himself and Mrs. Pompeo." Those tasks included walking his dog and picking up his dry cleaning, according to NBC.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Monday in a statement to CNBC: "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."
"We don't have the full picture yet, but it's troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed," Engel said.
Pompeo said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday that Linick was fired because he "wasn't performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to" and that he was "trying to undermine what it was that we were trying to do."
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Linick did not immediately respond to an email.
The Friday night firing was promptly condemned by Democrats, as well as some Republicans.
Engel, and Sen. Bob Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have demanded that the Trump administration hand over all records related to Linick's firing by Friday.
In a statement over the weekend, Engel and Menendez said that they understood Pompeo recommended Linick be fired "because the Inspector General had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself."
But Menendez told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Sunday that he believed Linick was looking into the emergency declaration used for the arms sale.
"He was also looking into two political retribution cases that I specifically sent to the inspector general. And I believe that his report was just issued or is coming," the New Jersey Democrat said. "If we constantly have inspector generals massacred on Friday night, then there will be no independence, there will be no checks and balances and the American people will be ill-served."
Saudi Arabia is America's top weapons buyer, and the world's largest arms importer. Between 2015 and 2019, Riyadh imported 73% of its arms from Washington, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The kingdom accounted for 25% of U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019, an uptick compared with 7.4% between 2010 to 2014, according to the report.
While Congress discussed the possibility of placing some restrictions on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia in 2019, deliveries of air defense systems, combat aircraft and guided bombs continued throughout the year.
In March 2018, Trump praised Saudi Arabia's defense acquisitions as he met with the nation's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed at the White House — and pushed for even more.
"Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they're going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world," Trump said at the time.
"There's nobody that even comes close to us in terms of technology and the quality of the equipment, and Saudi Arabia appreciates that," he added.
During the Oval Office talks, Trump touted the creation of 40,000 U.S. jobs due to Saudi military sales. The president used several maps and charts of Saudi acquisitions to further make his point.
The crown prince, likewise, added that last year's Saudi pledge of $200 billion in investments will rise to approximately $400 billion and that a 10-year window to implement the deal was already underway.
Saudi Arabia's oil-rich monarchy is considered a key strategic partner. It is a significant patron of U.S. defense companies. The Saudis are the top buyers of U.S.-made arms, a status that has safeguarded the kingdom from retaliatory sanctions over the killing of Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.
Trump told reporters on the heels of Khashoggi's death that he was disinterested in stopping a Saudi "investment of $110 billion into the United States."
"I know [senators are] talking about different kinds of sanctions, but [Saudi Arabia is] spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs," Trump said in October 2018. "I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States."
While Washington has several arms agreements with Riyadh, it was not immediately clear where the $110 billion figure was from, aside from a potential wish list of future deals because that money had not come through yet, according to State Department or Defense Security Cooperation Agency announcements.
The State Department had previously announced only six contracts worth a combined total of $4 billion since Trump's 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia.