Pompeo digs in during combative press briefing as scrutiny grows

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Amazon backtracks, says email asking employees to delete TikTok was sent in error Amazon asks employees to delete TikTok from mobile devices: report MORE held a combative press conference Wednesday that saw him fending off questions about his call to fire the State Department’s internal watchdog while slamming Democrats criticizing the move as political retaliation.

Pompeo defended President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE’s authority in firing State Department Inspector General Steve Linick late Friday, and doubled down in defending his recommendation that the watchdog be ousted, saying it should have been done “some time ago.”

Trump’s firing of Linick drew swift rebuke from Democrats, who raised allegations of political retaliation and said Pompeo was working to obstruct investigations into the actions of both the secretary and Trump.

Pompeo on Wednesday refused to answer questions about his reasons for pushing Linick out and took aim at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Trump administration moves to formally withdraw US from WHO MORE (D-N.J.), whom he accused of leaking repeatedly to the press, by referencing Menendez's past legal troubles.
 
“This is all coming through the office of Sen. Menendez,” the secretary said Wednesday, adding, “I don't get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted."

Pompeo was referring to a 2015 indictment against the New Jersey senator for allegedly taking bribes in return for political favors. Menendez’s case was dropped by the Department of Justice in January 2018 after a trial ended in a hung jury.

The secretary abruptly ended the press conference as reporters asked if he would cooperate with a congressional investigation into the circumstances surrounding Linick's dismissal, launched by Menendez and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMany Democrats want John Bolton's testimony, but Pelosi stays mum China must be held accountable for its egregious actions against Hong Kong Voice of America not extending foreign journalists' visas: report MORE (D-N.J.). The lawmakers have given the State Department a Friday deadline to hand over all records related to the IG’s dismissal.

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Menendez on Wednesday responded to Pompeo’s attacks by accusing the secretary of attempting to divert attention away from the allegations against him.

“The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful,” Menendez wrote in a statement to The Hill. “The Secretary should focus on answering questions and getting his story straight as to why he wanted to target IG Linick.”

“Secretary Pompeo now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions,” he added. “Not surprisingly, he has lashed out at me and others conducting Congressional oversight.”

Other allegations against the secretary that have emerged in the media in recent days include using a political appointee to run errands for him and his wife, such as walking the family dog, picking up dry cleaning and making dinner reservations.

Engel in a statement Wednesday said he is disappointed Pompeo hasn’t been more forthright on his reasons behind pushing for Linick’s removal.  

“It’s disappointing that Secretary Pompeo didn’t seize the opportunity to clear up the questions surrounding his recommendation to fire Inspector General Linick, or to commit to fulfilling the records request I made with Senator Menendez,” the chairman said in a statement. “Our investigation will go forward and we still hope for the Secretary’s cooperation.”

Engel said earlier this week that the IG’s firing appeared linked to an investigation into whether the president illegally used an emergency declaration to sell more than $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and without congressional approval. Pompeo at the time said the arms sales were necessary to “deter Iranian aggression.”

Pompeo reportedly refused to sit with the inspector general to answer questions about the Saudi arms deals, according to both the Wall Street Journal and Politico.

The secretary on Wednesday did not address the investigation into the arms sales, but said he had provided written answers to at least one investigation, saying he had limited knowledge of the scope of the investigation beyond what the questions asked but didn’t address the nature of his responses.

“I responded to those questions. ... 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,” he said, saying accusations of political retaliation are impossible if he had no knowledge of the scope of the investigation.

“There are claims that this was for a retaliation for some investigation that the Inspector General’s Office here was engaged in,” he said in the briefing with reporters. “It’s patently false. I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the Inspector General’s Office.”

But a new report suggests that Linick’s dismissal occurred within a week of the IG probing dozens of lavish dinners Pompeo and his wife held at the State Department, and whether they fell outside the scope of foreign policy and into the realm of political fundraising.

NBC News reported late Tuesday that Linick last week had made an inquiry to the Office of the Chief of Protocol, the office responsible for the dinners, and that Pompeo’s office was notified about the probe.

Menendez has also asked the Department of Justice to provide information about the dinners, of which the guest list included billionaire CEOs, Supreme Court justices, political influencers and ambassadors, according to the report.
 
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus defended the meals, reportedly called the “Madison Dinners” in reference to James Madison, the fourth president and former secretary of State who was known for hosting evenings to exchange ideas with foreign diplomats.


Ortagus in a statement to NBC News described the dinners as “a world-class opportunity to discuss the mission of the State Department and the complex foreign policy matters facing our exceptional nation,” adding that the secretary “benefited greatly” from these evenings in advancing U.S. foreign policy.

She added the guests included “foreign diplomats, thought leaders, academics, government leaders at many levels, business leaders, Members of Congress and the media — each of whom has a stake in America and its leadership in the world.”