Politics

Pompeo admits to answering questions in investigation as reporters ask him about IG firing

Key Points
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at Democrats investigating him, particularly Sen. Bob Menendez, as he defended his recommendation to President Trump to fire the State Department's internal watchdog.
  • The Cabinet official also told reporters at a press briefing that he had previously submitted written responses to questions sent by State Department Inspector General Steve Linick's office.
  • Pompeo has come under intense scrutiny since Trump followed through on his Cabinet official's recommendation to fire IG Steve Linick.
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Secretary Pompeo takes reporters' questions on Trump firing State Department IG

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday lashed out at Democrats investigating him, particularly Sen. Bob Menendez, as he defended his recommendation to President Donald Trump to fire the State Department's internal watchdog.

Pompeo also told reporters at a press briefing that he had previously submitted written responses to questions sent by State Department Inspector General Steve Linick's office. But he maintained that he could not have retaliated against Linick because he was unaware of specific investigations that the watchdog's office was conducting.

Pompeo has come under intense scrutiny since Trump followed through on his Cabinet official's urging to fire Linick.

"This is all coming through the office of Senator Menendez," Pompeo said at his first on-camera press briefing since Trump fired Linick on Friday night. "I don't get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted," he said of Menendez before abruptly ending the briefing.

Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey, was indicted in 2015 as part of an alleged bribery scheme in which he accepted gifts from a Florida ophthalmologist in exchange for using his office to benefit the doctor's financial and personal interest, the Justice Department said at the time.

Federal prosecutors later dropped their case against Menendez, and the judge presiding over the senator's trial dismissed the charges in 2018.

"The facts speak for themselves," Menendez said in response to Pompeo. "Secretary Pompeo now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions. Not surprisingly, he has lashed out at me and others conducting Congressional oversight."

"The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful," Menendez added.

Pompeo said at the briefing that he should have recommended Linick's ouster "some time ago," and denied that he was retaliating against the IG, who was reportedly investigating him.

"There are claims that this was for retaliation for some investigation that the inspector general's office here was engaged in. Patently false," Pompeo said.

"I couldn't possibly have retaliated for all the things -- I've seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner," Pompeo said, conflating reports about multiple probes being conducted by Linick.

"I mean, it's just crazy. It's all crazy stuff," he said.

Trump said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Friday night that he lost "confidence" in the watchdog, without providing further explanation.

Pompeo also did not provide a more detailed explanation for the firing when asked at the briefing.

"The president has a unilateral right to choose who he wants to be his inspector general at every agency in the federal government," Pompeo said. Some Republicans, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, have said that a lack of confidence is an insufficient explanation for firing the inspector general.

"Unlike others, I don't talk about personnel matters. I don't leak to y'all," Pompeo told reporters.

Linick had opened an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Pompeo, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said after the dismissal. A Democratic aide told NBC News 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, picking up his dry cleaning and making dinner reservations, according to NBC. 

Engel and Menendez are demanding that all records related to Linick's firing be handed over to them by Friday. Pompeo did not respond Wednesday when a reporter asked if he would comply with that document request.

Hours before the briefing was set to begin, new reports raised additional questions from Pompeo's critics about his conduct at the government agency.

NBC News reported Tuesday night that Pompeo and his wife, Susan Pompeo, had regularly held elaborate, federally funded dinners with influential figures who could boost his political ambitions.

Pompeo held about two dozen of those dinners since 2018, NBC reported.

Pompeo, in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday, denied that he fired Linick in retaliation for any reported probe into his conduct. He said he was not aware of the watchdog's investigations, so his recommendation could not have been an act of reprisal.

But on Wednesday, Pompeo did note that "there's one exception." 

"I was asked a series of questions in writing, I responded to those questions with respect to a particular investigation," Pompeo said, adding that he submitted those responses earlier this year, to the best of his memory.

Pompeo said he did not know the scope or the nature of that investigation. "I did what was right. I don't know if that investigation is continuing, I don't know if that investigation has been closed out. I don't have any sense of that. Again, it's not possible for there to have been retaliation."

Pelosi said Sunday that Linick's sudden firing could be "unlawful" if it was done in retaliation

NBC and other outlets reported Monday that Linick was also nearly done with another probe, this one dealing with Pompeo's approval of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Linick's 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 Monday. "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."

The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday morning reported that Pompeo had refused to sit for an interview about the Saudi arms deal with the IG's office. Politico first reported Pompeo's refusal to be interviewed.

Trump addressed the firing publicly during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

"I don't know the guy at all, I never even heard of him, but I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike," Trump said. Pompeo sat across from him at the White House meeting.

"I offered most of my people, almost all of them, I said, 'You know, these are [former President Barack] Obama appointees, if you'd like to let them go I think you should let them go, but that's up to you,'" Trump said.

"They asked me to terminate him. I have the absolute right as president to terminate," Trump added. "I don't know what's going on other than that but you'd have to ask Mike Pompeo. But they did ask me to do it and I did it."

-- CNBC's Amanda Macias contributed to this report.