House speaker Nancy Pelosi warned on Sunday that Donald Trump might have broken the law by firing the inspector general of the state department.
Trump said in a letter to Pelosi on Friday night that he had lost confidence in Steve Linick, a seasoned government lawyer who had held the state department role since his appointment by Barack Obama in 2013.
Pelosi was asked on CBS’ Face the Nation to comment on reports that Linick was dismissed after he opened an investigation into accusations that secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his wife had used government staff for private errands. Pompeo has denied wrongdoing.
“The president has the right to fire any federal employee, but the fact is if it looks like it’s in retaliation for something that the IG, the inspector general, is doing, that could be unlawful,” said Pelosi.
“They’re supposed to show cause,” she said. Democrats in Congress have opened an investigation of the dismissal, with the ostensible power to subpoena documents and call witnesses to testify.
The inquiry could be frustrated, however, by stonewalling by Pompeo, who blocked the testimony of state department officials during the impeachment inquiry last year.
Linick became the fourth inspector general to be ousted by Trump. Each major government agency has an inspector general, whom watchdogs regard as playing an essential role in combatting corruption.
The Trump administration has attempted to portray the internal government oversight apparatus as part of a conspiracy against Trump. White House economic adviser Peter Navarro defended Linick’s ouster along those lines on television on Sunday.
“We’ve had tremendous problems with, some people call it the ‘Deep State’,” Navarro said on ABC News’ This Week program, without offering any evidence to back the claim. “And I think that’s apt. So I don’t mourn the loss.”
Mitt Romney, a critic of the president who was the only Republican senator to vote in favor of convicting Trump on impeachment charges, expressed concern.
“The firings of multiple inspectors general is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose,” Romney said in a statement. “It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.”
In April, Trump removed a top coronavirus watchdog, Glenn Fine, who was to oversee the government’s financial relief response to the pandemic.
He also notified Congress that he was firing the inspector general of the US intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who was involved in triggering the impeachment investigation.
After Atkinson’s firing, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans Charles Grassley, Susan Collins and Romney, called on Trump to provide a detailed written explanation for his decision.
Then earlier this month, Trump ousted Christi Grimm, who led the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, after accusing her of having produced a “fake dossier” on American hospitals suffering shortages on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak.
Experts say the pattern threatens the independent oversight function that inspectors general provide, particularly if watchdogs feel pressure to do the president’s political bidding or risk being fired.
The system itself is now “weakening to the point of ineffectiveness”, said Dan Meyer, the executive director of Intelligence Community Whistleblowing and Source Protection.
Some Republicans in Congress have rushed to defend Trump’s decision to oust Linick.
In an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson said he felt “not all inspector generals are created equal” and noted they “serve at the pleasure of the president”.