GOP mostly silent on Trump’s removal of State Department’s top watchdog

Politics

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 13: The Capitol dome is seen early Wednesday morning before Amb. William Taylor And Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State George Kent testify at the first public impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Senior Republicans on Capitol Hill have been mostly silent since President Donald Trump on Friday announced he would fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah sharply criticized Trump’s string of firings of inspectors general, while just a handful of other Republicans said the President needed to provide Congress with more of an explanation than his general statement from Friday night that he lost confidence in the department’s top watchdog.

But the Republican leaders in the House and Senate and the GOP chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have yet to weigh in on Trump’s latest Friday night removal of an inspector general tasked with oversight of the federal government.

Linick was investigating whether Pompeo made a staffer perform a variety of personal errands, according to a Democratic aide, and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel said in a statement Monday that the inspector general was also probing Trump’s emergency declaration used to send arms to Saudi Arabia. A senior State Department official previously confirmed to CNN that Pompeo recommended Linick be removed, but they did not know the reasons why.

With his firing of Linick, Trump has now removed or replaced four inspectors general this year. He previously fired former intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, who notified Congress of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint last year; he replaced acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine, making him ineligible to chair the IG committee overseeing the coronavirus response; and he named a replacement for the HHS inspector general after attacking the principal deputy serving in the role, Christi Grimm, over a report on hospitals facing severe shortages.

Democrats have been up in arms over the firings, and Engel and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, quickly said they would investigate the circumstances of Linick’s dismissal.

Many key Republicans have yet to weigh in on the matter. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have yet to make a statement on the controversy.

Trump met at Camp David this weekend with several of his top Republican allies in the House who defended him during impeachment, including McCarthy.

Some Republicans say privately they want to learn more details about the situation — but they’re also cognizant of Trump’s wrath if they speak out against him.

Romney, the lone Republican in Congress to vote to convict Trump on an article of impeachment, said on Twitter Saturday that Trump’s firings were “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”

“The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” Romney tweeted.

Trump quickly responded with his own Twitter account, attacking the Utah Republican and belittling his 2012 defeat to former President Barack Obama.

“LOSER!” Trump tweeted Monday morning with a video montage from 2012.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican up for reelection in 2020, has been critical of Trump’s attacks on whistleblowers. She tweeted on Saturday that Trump had “not provided the kind of justification for the removal of IG Linick required” by a law she helped author requiring 30 days notice to Congress before inspectors general can be dismissed.

Trump responded by tagging her in a tweet on Sunday that attacked Rick Bright, the ousted director of a federal office that deals with responding to infectious diseases who filed a whistleblower complaint. “I hope you are listening @SenSusanCollins,” Trump wrote.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has long been an advocate of whistleblowers and inspectors general, also said this weekend that Trump’s explanation wasn’t sufficient.

“As I’ve said before, Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG’s removal. A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress,” Grassley said.

Earlier this month, Grassley told CNN he didn’t think new legislation was needed to respond to Trump’s firing. “I think we have plenty of laws to protect inspectors general.”

The circumstances of Trump’s firing of Linick remain murky. A spokeswoman for Rep. Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement on Monday that McCaul was looking into the matter.

“The State Department Inspector General performs essential oversight of the Department, so it raises questions when one is removed,” said McCaul spokeswoman Leslie Shedd.

Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he spoke to senior officials in the White House and State Department and understood the reasoning behind the move.

“I don’t know whether they’re going to provide any more robust rationale for doing it,” Johnson said, also adding: “I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination.”

Johnson also said that he and Grassley also had their own problem with Linick, though he didn’t explain what it was. “Both Sen. (Chuck) Grassley and I had a real problem with his responsiveness to, in particular, one oversight request,” Johnson said.

In his statement, Grassley said that the watchdog “failed to fully evaluate” the department’s role in “advancing the debunked Russian collusion investigation,” though he said it was still Trump’s “responsibility” to provide more details to Congress.

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