Outgoing Democratic chairman faces time crunch with Pompeo probe

Greg Nash

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are in a standoff that’s certain to end, one way or another, before the end of the year.

Engel, whose congressional panel has oversight of the State Department, is accusing Pompeo of stonewalling his committee amid multiple investigations into the secretary’s conduct and allegations of politicization of the State Department.

House Democrats are looking into Pompeo’s role in the ousting of the agency’s internal watchdog as well as the State Department’s refusal to hand over tens of thousands of documents related to former Vice President Joe Biden that were delivered to Senate Republicans conducting a probe of Biden’s dealings with Ukraine.

The pace of Engel’s probes is likely to accelerate in the coming weeks and months. The veteran lawmaker’s days in Congress are numbered after he lost his primary to a progressive challenger.

Pompeo, who has shown no signs of acquiescing, appears willing to wait out Engel by refusing committee requests, rejecting subpoenas and accusing the chairman of conducting a crusade against him.

“Mr. Chairman, the courts have found that congressional investigations conducted solely for the ‘personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to “punish” those investigated are indefensible,’” Pompeo wrote to Engel on Aug. 7 in a letter obtained by NBC News.

While conflict between opposing political parties is nothing new, the tensions between Engel and Pompeo are “unique,” said Linda Fowler, a professor at Dartmouth College and the author of “Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations.”

“It’s unique in the sense that it has not been customary for secretaries of State to ignore subpoenas. Period,” Fowler said. “The level of tension is unusual.”

One former senior State Department official said the back-and-forth between Engel and Pompeo “has reached new levels of acrimony.”

The former career official called it “worrisome” that the agency is refusing to provide documents to the Democratic-controlled committee over the Republican Senate committee.

“That’s real raw politics,” the former official said.

Engel on Tuesday said the State Department was having a “temper tantrum” after Pompeo canceled a number of staff-level briefings concerning counterterrorism efforts in Africa and spiraling U.S. and China relations.

The chairman asserted that the canceled meetings were directly tied to his committee’s investigation of the ousting of the State Department’s inspector general.

“Mr. Pompeo is sending a clear message: stop investigating me or the State Department is going to stop engaging Congress on other matters of national security,” Engel said in a statement. “This isn’t just petty; it’s dangerous. Congress and the Administration need to work together on the challenges facing our country or our security will suffer.”

Engel has further accused Pompeo of conducting a “smear campaign” against Biden, who’s now the Democratic presidential nominee, and of using taxpayer dollars to support President Trump’s reelection.

The State Department has so far refused to comply with a House subpoena to provide Engel’s committee with more than 16,000 documents it has given Senate Republicans who are investigating Biden.

The Senate GOP probe is focused on a widely discredited narrative that during the Obama administration, Biden tried to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to prevent an investigation into Burisma and his son Hunter Biden’s role at the energy company.

“The Department’s rapid, all-hands-on-deck response to the Senators’ patently partisan request, in contrast to its continued defiance of a duly authorized subpoena from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, reinforces the increasingly obvious conclusion that the Department under your leadership is advancing a narrow political agenda to assist the President’s reelection while ignoring legitimate attempts at oversight,” Engel wrote to Pompeo on Thursday.

Pompeo has argued that the State Department is not required to provide the subpoenaed documents because Engel’s committee is not investigating Biden. Engel has countered that the documents are related to his panel’s investigation into Pompeo’s conduct at the agency.

“To state once more, this committee is investigating your own conduct,” Engel wrote in an earlier request for the documents. 

In addition to the records request, Engel — along with the top Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — is investigating the circumstances surrounding Trump’s abrupt firing, at Pompeo’s request, of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick in May.

Democrats charge that Pompeo engineered the watchdog’s ousting as an act of political retaliation for investigations into the secretary’s use of an emergency declaration to push through billions of dollars of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Linick was also looking into whether Pompeo and his wife misused federal resources for personal benefit.

Pompeo has dismissed the accusations, saying he recommended firing Linick because the inspector general was a “bad actor” and undermining the mission of the State Department. The secretary has further denied that he was aware of any investigation into misuse of federal resources at the time of Linick’s ousting.

Engel’s committee has so far interviewed Linick, former State Department official Charles Faulkner and Toni Porter, a senior adviser to Pompeo who was reportedly at the center of the investigation over the misuse of funds.

There are three subpoenas out for top State Department officials to appear before the committee, including Under Secretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, a close ally of Pompeo whose friendship with the secretary of State dates back to their time at West Point and Harvard and then as business partners in Kansas.

The committee is also seeking testimony from acting State Department legal adviser Marik String and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Michael Miller.

Pompeo has so far managed to delay their testimony. He argued in an Aug. 3 letter to Engel and the committee that the State Department had offered “more than a dozen good faith accommodation offers” to allow officials to testify but that the committee had rejected the agency’s requests.

A State Department spokesperson said the committee’s “unwillingness to engage in the constitutionally mandated accommodation process has compelled multiple career and non-career department officials to seek personal counsel at great expense.”

The spokesperson addressed the canceled briefings by saying it would be a waste of resources on a committee that has failed to accommodate their requests.

“If the chairman and his staff are unwilling to accept the testimony of department officials, what is the point of sending up additional department officials to brief his staff on any topic if their testimony won’t be accepted?” the spokesperson asked.

With Engel’s time in Congress running out, Pompeo has the advantage, said Fowler of Dartmouth College.

“I can well imagine that [Engel] must be feeling pretty frustrated and has a brief opportunity before things shut down again for the election, which means that puts Pompeo with the whip hand, he can dictate the terms,” Fowler said.

Tags Donald Trump Eliot Engel House Foreign Affairs Committee Investigation Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Probe State Department Subpoena

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