By Karoun Demirjian and Carol Morello,
Senior State Department officials told lawmakers Wednesday that President Trump fired inspector general Steve Linick over poor performance and declining employee satisfaction, and not in an act of political retaliation, as Democrats have charged.
But the data the officials appear to have used to support their claim shows that key federal measures of employee satisfaction at the Office of the Inspector General were higher than in most other divisions of the State Department, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s office.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing was part of a broader investigation into the circumstances surrounding Linick’s ouster in the spring. Panel Democrats have said Linick was fired because he was reviewing Pompeo’s 2019 emergency declaration to approve $8 billion in arms sales to Persian Gulf countries while sidestepping Congress, and allegations that Pompeo used government aides to perform personal tasks. Pompeo has denied the allegations.
Brian Bulatao, a top adviser and confidant of Pompeo, said in his opening statement that “nothing could be further from the truth,” arguing that Linick could not have been fired over the investigations because Pompeo was never briefed on the details of them.
“This removal was about an IG who in my mind was increasingly falling short of expectations,” he added.
Bulatao testified that responses to the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey raised “major red flags” about morale in Linick’s office, which he said had “declined” in three key categories: employee engagement, employee satisfaction and diversity inclusion. Bulatao also said Linick’s office had experienced a “double-digit decline since 2016” in employee satisfaction metrics.
Bulatao also highlighted three questions from the 71-point survey to illustrate his assertions about the inspector general’s office: job health and safety hazards, potential security threats and whether employees thought their work was “important.”
Bulatao’s explanation is the most complete rationale that anyone in the Trump administration has offered to date for why the president fired Linick, one of five inspectors general dismissed over a six-week period this year.
But an analysis of the government survey compiled by the Partnership for Public Service found that the inspector general’s office performed better when it came to questions of whether employees were “satisfied” with their job and organization, and whether they would recommend that bureau “as a good place to work.”
In 2019, Linick’s office posted a score of 67.6, based on those measures, which were compiled into the Partnership for Public Service’s rankings on the best places to work in the federal government. That made it the third-best performing bureau, behind only the Foreign Service Institute and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
While that represented a drop of 2.6 from the previous year, its year-to-year performance was better than the Office of the Secretary, which scored significantly lower than any other of the 24 subcomponent bureaus at the State Department that appear in the rankings. Pompeo’s office scored 41.6 on satisfaction-related questions in the 2019 survey breakdown — a drop of 8.9 from the previous year.
Bulatao also charged that inspections decreased during Linick’s last year in office, and that he was late in submitting an internal audit and failed to update the department about diversity inclusion training in his office, telling senior department officials that “these are not our core values.”
According to Best Places to Work’s compilation of government survey answers, the Office of the Inspector General had the second-highest diversity score at the State Department — 71.2, a slight improvement over last year — while Pompeo’s office again came in last, with a score of 46.5.
R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary for political and military affairs, and Marik String, the department’s acting legal adviser, also spoke at the hearing.
Linick declined to comment Wednesday. State Department spokespeople did not return a request for comment when asked to explain how Bulatao reached his conclusions.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats did not directly challenge the metrics Bulatao presented to buttress his case, but Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) objected to the idea of firing Linick if morale was low.
“If people are going to be fired because of low morale, it starts at the top,” he said, in reference to Pompeo.
But panel Republicans defended the decision to oust Linick.
“The only mistake the president made in firing Steve Linick was in not doing it sooner,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said.