The ouster of the State Department’s inspector general, who had been investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on at least two charges of misconduct, is yet another instance of how corruption—and the tolerance, almost the expectation, of corruption—pervades the upper tiers of the Trump administration.
Pompeo may, at first glance, seem an unlikely candidate to get tangled in this web. He was the top-ranked graduate of his class at West Point (whose code of honor commands cadets not to “lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do”) and a church deacon with a strong moralistic bent (at least rhetorically).
Yet the firing of the IG, Steven Linick, appears to be Pompeo’s personal cover-up. Yes, President Donald Trump signed the letter notifying Congress that he was dismissing Linick because he’d lost confidence in his work. But when a reporter asked for elaboration, Trump replied that he didn’t know the guy, had never heard of him—that he fired him because “I was asked by the State Department, by Mike.” Meanwhile, Pompeo said that Linick hadn’t lived up to the department’s ethos and claimed that he didn’t even know Linick was investigating him. But the New York Times revealed on Tuesday that Pompeo refused to be interviewed by Linick about one of the probes—indicating that he knew about the probe after all.
Linick was looking into two issues brought to his attention by several employees. First, Pompeo and his wife, Susan, were using State Department political appointees for personal household tasks—having them pick up dry cleaning, walk their dog, buy groceries, and so forth. The couple have apparently made these demands quite a lot. A friend of the family told me that when Susan Pompeo visited her mother in Lafayette, Louisiana, security officials were ordered to pick her up at the airport. Last June, they were told to pack up the house in Lafayette and cart away boxes when her mother prepared to move to a retirement home in Overland Park, Kansas.
The second issue under investigation is that, last year, Pompeo illegally declared an “emergency” to circumvent a congressional ban on sending weapons to Saudi Arabia, which would use them for the war in Yemen—although, as was later discovered, there was no real emergency.
The second act is more serious than the first, but both reflect an arrogance in office and a contempt for the laws and regulations designed to rein in corrupt behavior.
So what happened to Pompeo on the road from valedictorian at the U.S. Military Academy, Class of 1986, to the latest paragon of dishonor in the Trump administration? Two mutually reinforcing factors seem to be at play. First, Pompeo’s career, at least for the past 20 years, has been marked by a relentless pursuit of power. Second, the glaring example of Trump’s own use of his office for personal gain has granted his underlings license to do likewise—the more so, as Trump demands from them loyalty and emulation above all else.
In her August 2019 New Yorker profile, “Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of Trump,” Susan Glasser laid out a highly detailed chronicle of her subject’s career. In the late 1990s, after a stint as a Washington lawyer, Pompeo divorced his first wife and moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he and three former West Point classmates started an aircraft company, which was funded in good part by the Koch brothers. (Pompeo has said that the Kochs put up only 2 percent of the capital, but Glasser found documents indicating they supplied 20 percent.) The business ultimately failed (again, contrary to Pompeo’s later claims), but he used his Koch connection to run for Congress as a Republican candidate affiliated with the then-burgeoning tea party movement. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Pompeo supported Marco Rubio and railed against Trump during the Kansas primary. When Trump won the nomination, Pompeo came around, as did most of the other candidates. A four-term congressman by this point, he had recently raised his profile by hammering Hillary Clinton in the House hearings on Benghazi. (He was one of just two Republicans who wrote a minority report, dissenting from the overwhelming bipartisan consensus that Clinton was not to blame for the terrorist killings of four Americans.)
He was also a good friend of Mike Pence, who convinced Trump to nominate Pompeo as CIA director. Pompeo, who had a keen feel for how to butter up his superiors and donors, quickly detected that total subordination was the way to Trump’s heart—and to further advancement. Pompeo really wanted to be secretary of state—he involved himself in policy matters far more than CIA directors had traditionally done—and, when Trump tired of his first top diplomat, Rex Tillerson (who had famously referred to the president as a “fucking moron”), Pompeo lobbied for the job and, after getting it, continued to do Trump’s bidding, in Trump’s style, even when he privately disagreed with his policies.*
Pompeo has displayed a haughty sneer at every congressional hearing where he’s been asked confrontational questions. Some recall that same sneer when he questioned Hillary Clinton and other Obama-era witnesses from the other side of the dais. The sneer showed up again Wednesday morning, at a press conference where, after condemning the Chinese government for not letting reporters ask all the questions they like, he walked out of the room without answering several questions about the IG investigation. (He denied any wrongdoing and said, without proof, that all the leaks were coming from Sen. Bob Menendez and said he doesn’t need to take ethics lessons from a man who was tried on charges of bribery.) Back in his House days, his intended audiences for these displays were the rock-hard conservatives back in Kansas and the increasingly tea party-infused GOP leadership. Now, the audience—a singular target—is Trump.
For a while, Pompeo, who is just 55, has thought about going back to Kansas and running for Senate. (Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, is urging Pompeo to do just that; the race for an open seat is unusually competitive, and McConnell fears losing the party’s control of the Senate.*) One reason for Pompeo’s hesitancy is that he has a dream of running for president in 2024. NBC News reported on Tuesday that he has held several plush dinners in the State Department, at taxpayers’ expense, ostensibly to discuss foreign policy with outside experts, but most of the guests—according to leaked invitation lists—have been famous corporate and entertainment figures. Officials have raised concerns about these dinners, seeing them as vehicles to create what NBC called “a donor and supporter base for Pompeo’s political ambitions.” It is unclear whether the IG was investigating the dinners as well, but Congress is likely to take a look now.
A publicized probe into the misuse of public funds and abuses of power might tarnish higher political ambitions. So the inspector general had to be disposed of. But now that Pompeo’s own role in the ouster has come to light, now that it’s clear the accused was behind the sacking of the accuser, the cover-up—as the old saying has it—might appear worse than the malfeasance.
There’s a final irony. Linick, a career inspector general, was appointed to the State Department post in 2013 by President Barack Obama. That alone was sufficient cause for Trump to sign off on Pompeo’s request to fire him. He would be the fourth IG that Trump has dismissed for doing their jobs too diligently. But one thing that Trump didn’t know: Linick was the one who first investigated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for sending official emails on her personal server. In this sense, Linick’s entirely nonpartisan doggedness is one reason Trump is president—and, by extension, why Pompeo is secretary of state. Trump, as usual, will suffer nothing from his latest obstruction of an independent inquiry. However, Pompeo—like many others who have served Trump, only to be pushed under the bus—may lose it all.
Correction, May 20, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Mitch McConnell as Mike McConnell and misstated that McConnell fears losing control of Congress; his party only controls the Senate. This piece also misstated that Tillerson referred to Trump as a “fucking idiot.” The phrase was “fucking moron.”