03:40 - Source: CNN
Sen. Johnson says WH explained firing of inspector general
CNN  — 

Many top Republicans in Congress are backing President Donald Trump amid the uproar caused by his announcement late Friday that he would fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the latest in a string of watchdogs he’s removed.

GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah sharply criticized Trump’s firings, 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 many Republicans told reporters Monday that Trump had the right to fire the inspector general, and allies of Trump said he had good reason for doing so.

“The President needs to surround himself with people that he has confidence in – this is a presidential decision,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Foreign Relations Committee member and part of GOP leadership.

“It is the President’s prerogative and within his authority to make decisions regarding the adequacy of performance and continued employment of the inspector general,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch said in a statement, adding that he was “in contact with the administration over this matter and expect to continue to learn more.”

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.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican close to Trump, told CNN he had spoken with “high-level” State Department officials about the firing of the inspector general, and they told him there were leaks coming from that office during investigations.

“I think that’s what they’re concerned about,” Graham said, adding he believed State would be putting out details with the “problems they had with this guy.”

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.

The highest-ranking congressional Republicans have yet to weigh in on the matter: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who joined Trump with top Republican allies at Camp David this weekend, has not commented, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ignored a question on the controversy in the Capitol on Monday.

Several of the Republicans who have criticized Trump faced blowback from his Twitter account.

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 on Twitter, 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.

Collins told reporters Monday it was clear in the law the President’s has to provide justification under the law to remove an inspector general. “It is not a sufficient justification to say that he simply lost confidence,” she said.

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. He said Monday he would “try to get to the bottom” of what happened.

“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.

Grassley sent a letter to Trump on Monday seeking an explanation for Linick’s dismissal – as well as a response to his previous letter on Atkinson’s firing – and expressing concern about a political appointee from inside the agency becoming acting inspector general. Linick will be replaced on an acting basis by Ambassador Stephen Akard, who is head of State’s Office of Foreign Missions.

“I want to work with you to ensure that the enemy here is wasteful government spending, not the government watchdogs charged with protecting the taxpayer,” Grassley wrote.

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.”

Asked about new legislation Monday, moderate Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski said: “I don’t know that we need additional legislation. I think we should just protect their independence.”

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.

Other Republicans also said they hoped to learn more. Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up for reelection in Iowa said that inspectors general “serve at the pleasure of the President, but certainly we’ll hear from all sides on it and I think that’s important thing to do is just learn what the facts are.”

Sen. John Cornyn, a member of GOP leadership, said the string of IG firings “makes me curious what’s going on.”

“I am sure there will be some oversight hearings and we’ll get to the bottom of it,” the Texan said when asked if he was concerned Trump may have bypassed requirements he explain to Congress why he is firing one of the independent government watchdogs.

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.

This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.

CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.