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WASHINGTON - A key U.S. Democratic lawmaker suggested Monday that U.S. President Donald Trump may have abruptly fired the internal State Department watchdog last week at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's behest because he was nearing completion of a probe into Pompeo's controversial fast-tracking of arms sales last year to Saudi Arabia.
Initially, Democratic lawmakers contended that Trump ousted Steve Linick, the State Department's inspector general, because he was investigating claims that Pompeo and his wife Susan have been using a government aide for personal tasks, such as walking their family dog, picking up dry cleaning and making dinner reservations for the couple.
But Congressman Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted, "I've learned there may be another reason for IG Linick's firing. His office was investigating-at my request-Trump's phony emergency declaration so he could send Saudi Arabia weapons. We don't have the full picture yet, but it's troubling that Sec Pompeo wanted Linick pushed out."
Engel said Linick's probe centered on the Trump administration's emergency declaration a year ago to bypass Congress to approve $8.1 billion in arms sales to several countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. said at the time the weapons were needed to deter what it called "the malign influence" of Iran throughout the Middle East.
Trump told reporters Monday at the White House that he fired Linick at Pompeo's request.
"I have the absolute right as president to terminate. I said, 'Who appointed him?' And they say, 'President Obama.' I said, look, I'll terminate him," he said.
Pompeo told The Washington Post on Monday that he recommended to Trump that Linick be removed because Linick was "undermining" the State Department's mission and said it was not in retaliation for any investigation. He did not give further specifics on why he recommended Linick be fired.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Trump on Monday asking him to justify Linick's removal within 30 days.
"This removal is part of a pattern of undermining the integrity of the Inspectors General and therefore our government," she wrote.
"Inspectors General are a critical part of our democracy, playing an essential role in preventing waste, fraud and abuse and ensuring transparency of government actions," she added.
Linick's ouster was the fourth time in recent weeks that Trump has dismissed an inspector general who has played one role or another in holding his administration to account for its actions.
Critics, supporters of the move
Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Engel sent a joint letter to the White House requesting administration officials turn over documents by Friday related to Linick's firing.
"The President can't fire watchdogs without giving a proper reason and justification to Congress - all of Congress. Secret reasons don't count," Menendez said Sunday.
A Republican ally of Trump, Sen. Chuck Grassley from Iowa, also called for more information on the removal.
"An expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements" of the law, Grassley said in a letter to Trump.
Other key Republicans came to Trump's defense.
Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro told ABC News's "This Week" show, "I support whatever this president does in terms of his hiring and firing decisions.
"There is a bureaucracy out there and there's a lot of people in that bureaucracy who think they got elected president and not Donald J. Trump," Navarro said, "And we've had tremendous problem with what some people call the Deep State. I think that's apt. So, I don't mourn the loss."
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told CNN that he felt that "not all inspector generals are created equal" and noted they "serve at the pleasure of the president."
Trump previously had dismissed Glenn Fine, who was overseeing the government's financial relief response to the coronavirus pandemic; Michael Atkinson, who as inspector general of the U.S. intelligence community played a role in triggering Trump's impeachment late last year; and Christi Grimm, the Health and Human Services inspector general Trump accused of producing a "fake dossier" on medical supply shortages at American hospitals dealing with the pandemic.
Linick was appointed to the State Department inspector general post by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat Trump often criticizes.
Last year, Pompeo defended the U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. "These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said in a statement.
But several Democratic and Republican lawmakers condemned the arms sales, citing the Saudis' human rights record and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.