Long before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was allegedly asking American taxpayers to cover his costs for dog walking by Trump political appointees, he was a member of Congress throwing down thunderbolts from his taxpayer-funded Benghazi committee perch in the House of Representatives.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be at all surprised that with the investigators closing in on his alleged official malfeasance, he would do what any panicking suspect with a powerful boss would do: tell him to fire the investigator and claim ignorance of the whole mess. But this mess isn’t going away anytime soon, as cover-ups that happen in full public view tend to reveal more than they hide.
It may sound preposterous that one day the American secretary of state is lambasting China for a disinformation campaign and cover-up about its mishandling of the coronavirus while days later he’s misinforming the public about his own boss’ firing of Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general (IG), in order to cover up his misdeeds. But this is the Trump Administration. Here, oversight is seen as an act of war, not a constitutional responsibility.
Trump’s disemboweling of oversight both within the executive branch and by Congress has real consequences. Linick is now the fourth IG in recent weeks to have lost their job for nothing more than doing it too well on behalf of all of us. First it was the Intelligence Community’s IG, then the Pentagon’s, then the deputy IG at the Department of Health and Human Services—and now Linick. What did they all have in common? They aggressively searched for waste, fraud, and abuse by Trump officials, as the law required them to do.
IGs see misdeeds and recommend how to fix them. In Trump’s dysfunctional administration, there’s a lot to see. By firing the IGs, Trump is deliberately sending an intimidating signal to our civil service and doing so at the exact moment—a national crisis—when Americans need our government to function as effectively as possible.
When one works in a federal agency, the IG is always an adversarial entity. No administration enjoys having an independent inspector sitting in their midst, watching to ensure that the public’s needs are met, just like any publicly traded company dislikes its auditors. Yet they are needed. The symbiotic nature of the relationship between IG and agency—and business and auditor—is what gives the public—and shareholders—confidence in the product.
By recommending the decapitation of the State Department’s IG, Pompeo isn’t just blocking insight into what he’s personally doing, he’s also destroying the public trust and confidence in his actions, actions that matter to American national security.
It used to be that America’s top diplomat was above politics, or at least feigned attempts to be so. That’s because on the world stage, America needs a credible face to the world that demonstrates that they represent the whole country, not narrow partisan interests. That’s what makes them maximally effective.
Not anymore. Now, it’s easier for Americans to find Pompeo doing right-wing media interviews about the coronavirus with Sebastian Gorka than it is to find him doing his job, such as testifying to America’s elected representatives on Capitol Hill.
The reason for this is clear. His platform is more about protecting Donald Trump’s narrow political base than it is about building broad American consensus for a desperately needed effective foreign policy.
But just as the firing of James Comey turbocharged the Russia investigation, it’s likely too that the Linick firing will foster a deeper reckoning of Pompeo’s politicization of the State Department, particularly by Congress.
Pompeo should know a thing or two about this. When he was in Congress, he made sure to find a way to use the Benghazi platform to advance his political future. For instance, when he questioned Hillary Clinton at her testimony to the Benghazi committee, he lamented Clinton’s alleged failure to support requests made to the Diplomatic Security bureau for protection in Libya—the same bureau whose agents he now allegedly uses to pick up his dry-cleaning.
Yet Linick wasn’t just investigating Pompeo about personal misuse of staff. He was also investigating the much more troubling matter of his possible abuse of power: the State Department’s potentially illegal decision to declare a national emergency in order to send more than $8 billion and 120,000 smart bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to propel their genocide in Yemen. This move was soundly rejected by bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress. But instead of embracing American consensus on a foreign policy issue, as is his charge, Pompeo unjustifiably thwarted it.
In response, Congress pounced, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) sending a public letter to Linick demanding an IG investigation into the Saudi-Emirati arms affair. This clearly provoked both Pompeo’s ire and his current misstep, including his mind-bending claim that he didn’t know that he and his department were being investigated by Linick, despite reports that he rejected requests from the investigators to speak to them.
It cannot be overstated just how much of a test this firing is for our democracy. Will Americans allow our government to continue to so brazenly shred the essence of our democratic system? What will happen to the checks and balances that protect us? The answer will determine whether our government as a whole still supports crucial transparency.
And transparency matters. It helps the government to make better decisions on behalf of all of us taxpayers. Yet for Donald Trump, the answer to the question is clear: Transparency is the enemy. Just as with the coronavirus, for him the illness isn’t the problem; it’s the testing and the resultant information gained from those tests. The same apparently goes for Pompeo. It’s not his misuse of office or skirting of congressional intent that matters. It’s the public’s awareness of it. For him, it’s best to keep the shareholders in the dark.
But as we all know now, once information like this comes out, it reflects very badly on those trying to cover it up. Perhaps that’s why Trump is acting like he had nothing to do with the firing, understanding that Pompeo, by seeking to cauterize the bleeding of his reputation caused by his mismanagement, has actually shined a bright light on it, for all of America to see. Even Donald Trump knows when he’s been dealt a bad hand.
Joel Rubin was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama-Biden Administration and a career State Department officer in the Bush Administration. He most recently served as the Jewish Outreach Director for the Bernie Sanders Presidential Campaign.