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What It Is Like To Serve As The State Department Inspector General

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Exactly why the State Department inspector general was fired seems to be an open question. President Trump says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to fire Steve Linick, but the secretary is now trying to brush off mounting concerns that the dismissal was retaliation for an investigation into some of Pompeo's controversial actions. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: To get a better sense of the job, here's Harold Geisel, who was acting inspector general right before the now-fired Steve Linick held the post. Geisel remembers some advice he got from a mentor that still resonates today.

HAROLD GEISEL: He used to say that the IGs sit on the barbed wire fence between the Hill and the executive. And if it doesn't hurt once in a while, he's probably not doing a very good job.

KELEMEN: Steve Linick is now caught on that fence between Congress and the president, who gave him 30 days' notice. Democrats on the Hill and a few Republicans are using this time to urge the Trump administration to explain why it fired him. Today, Pompeo refused to give any reason at all, saying the president has the, quote, "unilateral right to choose who he wants to be his inspector general" at every government agency.

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MIKE POMPEO: They're presidentially confirmed positions, and those persons, just like all of us, serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. In this case, I recommended to the president that Steve Linick be terminated - frankly should've done it some time ago.

KELEMEN: The Democrat who runs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, says it was disappointing that the secretary didn't use the opportunity today to clear up questions about the firing or commit to responding to his request for documents about it. Engel points out that Linick had almost finished a report on how the Trump administration bypassed opposition in Congress to greenlight a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Democrats say the inspector general was also looking into complaints that the secretary and his wife had a State Department employee walk their dog and do other personal errands. Pompeo ridiculed the various accusations against him.

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POMPEO: I've seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. I mean, it's all just crazy. It's all crazy stuff.

KELEMEN: He says, with one exception when he responded to written questions from the inspector general earlier this year, he didn't know what that office was reviewing.

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POMPEO: There are claims that this was for retaliation for some investigation that the inspector general's office here was engaged in. It's patently false. I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general's office.

KELEMEN: But CNN reported last year about a whistleblower complaint from staff running personal errands for the Pompeos, and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee initiated that probe into the Saudi arms deal. The inspector general's office won't confirm or deny specific investigations, but a spokesperson there points out that the office does have a hotline that allows employees, contractors and the public to report allegations of waste, fraud, abuse or misconduct. Former inspector Ambassador Geisel says while inspectors general are political appointees - Linick was appointed by President Obama - they try to remain nonpartisan.

GEISEL: Being an IG is being a truth teller if you're doing your job. And I used to say that everyone loves to hear the truth until it's the truth that they don't love.

KELEMEN: Democrats on Capitol Hill say they will continue to look into Linick's firing, adding they still hope for Secretary Pompeo's cooperation.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.