House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel and colleagues requested an inspector general’s investigation after diplomats and other State Department employees said they believed Donald Trump’s appointees were targeting them unfairly. | Jose Luis Magana, File/AP Photo
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel said he was ‘fed up with the State Department playing games with this investigation.’
By NAHAL TOOSI
08/09/2019 02:52 PM EDT
Updated 08/09/2019 04:48 PM EDT
Democrats and many in the State Department are increasingly exasperated that they have yet to see the results of an investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s political appointees mistreated career staffers.
The delayed release of the State Department inspector general’s findings has generated rising suspicion that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to derail the investigation, whose results could be damning to some of his top aides. Lawmakers initially expected the report “months ago,” according to Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Story Continued Below
Engel said he was “fed up with the State Department playing games with this investigation.”
“We just keep hearing excuse after excuse for the delay, which only serves to shake confidence in the integrity of the IG’s investigation,” the New York Democrat added in a statement.
Aides to Pompeo did not offer comment on his role. The inspector general’s office, however, insisted that there is nothing unusual in the length of time it’s taken to release the findings. “There has been no delay, and we anticipate publishing the report this month,” said Sarah Breen, a spokeswoman for Inspector General Steve Linick. “We continue to act independently and objectively.”
According to Breen, Linick’s investigation dates to at least March 2018. A second piece of the investigation launched in July 2018. Lawmakers requested an initial probe of the alleged misconduct as early as January 2018.
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The probe is expected to cover a wide array of suspected mistreatment of Foreign Service and Civil Service officers by Trump political appointees. The majority of the alleged improprieties are thought to have occurred under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but the accused include some political appointees who also served under Pompeo.
Among the allegations: that a political appointee made loyalty lists of career staffers she considered supportive or unsupportive of Trump; that numerous career employees, including high-ranking ones, were given low-level duties processing Freedom of Information Act requests to punish them for work they did under former President Barack Obama; and that one career staffer’s assignment to a top policy post was cut short because of her Iranian ancestry and her work on the Iran nuclear deal.
Revelations that outside conservative figures, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, may have played a role in targeting career staffers have fueled the anticipation of Linick’s findings.
Originally, one major report was expected, but Linick has said he decided to split it into two. The first will cover dysfunction in the State bureau that deals with international organizations. The second will cover the actions of top officials who report directly to the secretary.
In July, during an appearance before lawmakers, Linick indicated it was a matter of days before the first report’s release. But this week, top State Department officials requested a second extension, until at least next week, as they respond to the IG findings.
Breen said it’s not unusual to grant extensions. “It would, in fact, be out of the ordinary for us to refuse a request for an extension, especially on a report of this significance,” the spokeswoman said, speaking about the first report. The inspector general’s office is still drafting the second report.
A Democratic Capitol Hill aide, however, described the delays as “recurrent and uncharacteristic,” while adding that they have “only heightened expectations that the Inspector General’s findings will shed significant light into reported abuse of power.”
Linick told lawmakers said while the report on the bureau for international organizations was basically finished, but that the report on the actions of the secretary’s senior aides had proven more complex. The latter is also the focus of an investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, another independent federal watchdog.
“It’s a top priority for our office,” Linick said at the time.
Career employees, who typically hail from either Civil Service or Foreign Service, make up the backbone of the U.S. government, offering continuity and expertise even as the White House changes hands.
Career staffers pledge to serve in a nonpartisan fashion, carrying out their duties regardless of White House leadership. They often report to “political appointees” — people named to key posts by the president to help implement his agenda.
Many of Trump’s political appointees came to government deeply suspicious of career staffers — some believed them to be part of a “deep state” determined to block the Republican president’s plans.
Engel and colleagues requested an inspector general’s investigation in January 2018 after hearing from diplomats and other State Department employees who believed Trump’s appointees were targeting them unfairly for political retaliation.
Many of these career staffers had worked on projects that were priorities for the Obama administration. For instance, some had helped resettle refugees or tried to close the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Since taking over as secretary of State in April 2018, Pompeo has insisted that he would not tolerate political retribution against career staffers.
Yet, Pompeo initially refused to let his department cooperate with congressional investigators simultaneously looking into the alleged mistreatment of career staffers, before relenting in May. He also has kept on some aides accused of mistreating career staffers, such as Brian Hook, his envoy for Iran issues.
Pompeo’s behavior has been a major sore point for State Department employees, who otherwise see him as an improvement over Tillerson.
“It’s really disappointing. We all know what’s been going on and the impact it’s had on people and their careers,” said one State Department employee. “I can’t understand why Secretary Pompeo isn’t interested in having an impartial report of the facts.”
Earlier this month, Pompeo did fire Kiron Skinner, State’s director of Policy Planning, over alleged abusive behavior toward her staff. Skinner’s case is not known to be under review by the inspector general.
Linick has been the State Department’s inspector general since September 2013. His office is seen as productive, regularly issuing audits, inspections and other types of reports. This week, it released a report measuring the various effects of a hiring freeze imposed by Tillerson.
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