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WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday staunchly defended his request that President Donald Trump fire the State Department's internal watchdog, saying he "should have done it some time ago."
But the top U.S. diplomat, speaking at a State Department news conference, declined to say why he felt that Inspector General Steve Linick was undermining the agency's operations.
"I can't give you specificity," he told reporters, saying he "can't talk about personnel matters."
Trump ousted Linick late last Friday, the fourth inspector general at federal agencies he has dismissed in the last several weeks, all of whom had played a role in investigating various aspects of Trump's 3 ½ -year tenure in the White House.
Two key Democratic lawmakers with oversight of the State Department's operations, Congressman Eliot Engel of New York and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have contended that Pompeo sought Linick's removal in retaliation for his investigation of 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.
In addition, Engel contended earlier this week that Trump fired Linick at 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.
At his news conference, Pompeo rejected the suggestion that he sought Linick's dismissal in retaliation for his investigations.
"I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general's office," Pompeo said. "I couldn't possibly have retaliated.
"I've seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner," Pompeo said, conflating the allegations against him. "I mean, it's all just crazy. It's all crazy stuff."
Pompeo said he was asked "a series of questions" in writing by Linick's office earlier this year and responded "to the best of my ability."
"I don't recall the scope or nature of that investigation," Pompeo said. He said he does not know whether that specific probe is continuing or has been ended.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, accused Pompeo of declining an interview with the inspector general. She said it was "a reflection of the complete disregard for the truth of the Trump administration."
Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested earlier this week that Pompeo wanted Linick removed because "his office was investigating-at my request-Trump's phony emergency declaration so he could send Saudi Arabia weapons" a year ago, arms sales that Democrats and some Republicans objected to because of Riyadh's human rights abuses.
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 at the White House Monday 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.
Menendez earlier this week said, "The President can't fire watchdogs without giving a proper reason and justification to Congress - all of Congress. Secret reasons don't count."
Harold Geisel, a former acting State Department inspector general, said, "The purpose of an Office of Inspector General is to promote the integrity and efficiency of its agency. That work often results in the OIG criticizing organizations and individuals and making suggestions for improvements."
He added, "The IG must be independent. I don't believe any other Department of State IG has been publicly dismissed by the president. I do believe, however, that other IGs at State and other agencies may have been encouraged to resign and they then resigned."