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Inspector general's firing puts Pompeo's use of taxpayer funds under scrutiny

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo swatted away questions about his use of government resources again and again last year.

In January, news reports cited unnamed diplomats complaining about his wife, Susan Pompeo, traveling with him across the Middle East during a partial government shutdown.

In the summer, members of Congress began examining a whistleblower complaint accusing him of asking diplomatic security agents to run errands like picking up restaurant takeout meals and retrieving the family dog, Sherman, from a groomer.

And in October, a Democratic senator called for a special counsel to investigate his use of State Department aircraft and funds for frequent visits to Kansas, where he was reported to be considering a Senate run.

In each case, Pompeo or other department officials denied wrongdoing, and the secretary moved on unscathed.

But his record is now coming under fresh scrutiny after President Donald Trump told Congress on Friday night that he was firing the State Department inspector general — at Pompeo’s private urging, a White House official said.

The inspector general, Steve Linick, who leads hundreds of employees in investigating fraud and waste at the State Department, had begun an inquiry into Pompeo’s possible misuse of a political appointee to perform personal tasks for him and his wife, according to Democratic aides. That included walking the dog, picking up dry cleaning and making restaurant reservations, one said — an echo of the whistleblower complaint from last year.

The details of Linick’s investigation are not clear, and it may be unrelated to the previous allegations. But Democrats and other critics of Pompeo say the cloud of accusations shows a pattern of misuse of taxpayer money — one that may mean lawmakers will be less willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt as congressional Democrats begin an investigation into Linick’s dismissal.

The investigation is aimed at determining whether the act was one of illegal retaliation intended to shield Pompeo from accountability — which “would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions,” Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, leading Democrats on foreign policy committees, said in a joint statement.

Linick is the fourth inspector general to fall in a purge this spring by Trump of officials he has deemed insufficiently loyal, but the dismissal is the first to prompt a formal inquiry in Congress, and it has also drawn criticism from a few Republicans.

Aides to Pompeo did not reply to repeated requests for comment. The White House did not respond to questions about whether it knew of Linick’s investigation into Pompeo when it moved to dismiss him.

Linick’s office has not commented on that inquiry or on Trump’s announcement, which started a 30-day clock on the inspector general’s departure.

Employees under Linick generally view him as competent and nonpartisan. Linick began his current job in 2013, and he held senior posts in the Justice Department starting in the administration of President George W. Bush. Linick played a minor role during the impeachment hearings last fall.

Since Pompeo took up his current post in April 2018, and for more than one year before that as the CIA director, he has been peerless in his navigation of Trump’s inner world of loyal advisers and domestic politics around foreign policy. While sticking close to Trump, he has weathered the impeachment process involving Ukraine, questions over the decision to kill a top Iranian general and the fraught diplomacy between the president and Kim Jong Un, the unpredictable leader of North Korea.

But the maelstrom of questions that began over the weekend could present a formidable challenge to Pompeo’s political instincts and career ambitions. People close to him say he is thinking of running for president in 2024. And more immediately, the Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly urged him to run for an open Senate seat in Kansas — an important race given that the Republicans are at risk of losing control of the Senate in the November elections.

Susan Pompeo has accompanied her husband on several long trips overseas. In January 2019, she went with him on an eight-day journey across the Middle East — which raised questions among some officials because most State Department employees, including those supporting the trip, were working without pay during a partial government shutdown. She has also flown with her husband on multinight trips to Switzerland and Italy, which included a visit to the secretary’s ancestral home region of Abruzzo.

Susan Pompeo, who is not paid by the State Department, has met with embassy families and local figures on some of the trips, and her husband has called her a “force multiplier.” She also played an unusually prominent volunteer role at the CIA when Pompeo was the director there; she traveled with her husband, used an office space in CIA headquarters and asked employees to assist her — actions that an agency spokesman defended at the time.

Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas last year also drew intense scrutiny. He went four times, mostly on the auspices of official business and flying in and out on State Department aircraft. To many, the trips appeared to be part of a shadow Senate campaign for 2020 and had little to do with foreign policy, despite Pompeo’s denials and his refusal so far to agree to run for the seat.

On the last trip, in October, Pompeo took part in a student event with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. And he discussed the Senate race with Charles Koch, the billionaire who is a longtime supporter of Pompeo, and Dave Robertson, president and chief operating officer of Koch Industries, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The Kansas City Star ran a blistering editorial denouncing Pompeo’s frequent trips to his adopted home state, telling him he should quit and run for Senate or “by all means focus on U.S. diplomacy — remember diplomacy? — and stop hanging out here every chance he gets.”

Four days later, Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel asking it to investigate Pompeo for potential violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their official positions to engage in partisan political activities.

Separately, Democratic lawmakers on a House committee last year began looking at a whistleblower complaint that Pompeo, his wife and adult son were asking diplomatic security agents to run personal errands, including picking up Chinese food and the family dog from a groomer. The whistleblower said agents had complained they were “UberEats with guns,” according to CNN, which first reported on the accusations.

Lon Fairchild, the agent in charge of the Diplomatic Security Service, told CNN that he had seen no wrongdoing. The Democratic lawmakers did not open a formal inquiry.

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