foreign policy

Fired State Department watchdog was probing protocol office

The investigation may have contributed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s push to oust Steve Linick.

Steve Linick

The now-fired State Department inspector general had recently wrapped up an investigation into two other top aides to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, determining that they had likely failed to report allegations of workplace violence, a person familiar with the issue told POLITICO.

The probe into Cam Henderson, who leads the department’s Office of Protocol, and a deputy of hers, Mary-Kate Fisher, could have been another factor in what Pompeo and his deputies have described as mounting frustration with the inspector general, Steve Linick, and might have contributed to the secretary’s push to oust him.

The Pompeos worked closely with the Office of Protocol on a series of intimate, hush-hush dinners that featured influential conservatives, administration officials and Wall Street financiers in what some critics have viewed as the improper use of taxpayer dollars.

President Donald Trump fired Linick on Friday night, acting on what the president said was Pompeo’s recommendation. Linick was one of several government watchdogs Trump has sidelined in recent weeks, infuriating Democrats who say he is trying to evade oversight and accountability.

Pompeo’s role in the ouster has come under growing scrutiny, with a slew of sudden reports about ways in which the inspector general was looking into his actions, those of his wife, Susan, as well as some of his aides. In a news conference Wednesday, Pompeo decried many of the allegations as “crazy.”

Henderson took over as the chief of the Office of Protocol last summer, after her former boss, Sean Lawler, was pushed out. Some in that office accused Lawler of intimidating and harassing his staffers, and even carrying around a whip on the job.

The inspector general had investigated further claims that Henderson and Fisher, while working under Lawler, had violated State Department policy by not reporting allegations involving Lawler and workplace violence to higher-ups. The person said Linick’s office had determined that Henderson and Fisher likely had violated regulations and that the State Department should take appropriate action.

According to the person familiar with the issue, the probe was finished about two weeks ago and Linick’s office was awaiting a response from the department. A second person, who was briefed on the matter, confirmed that the inspector general’s office was nearly finished with a probe of Henderson’s activities. A State Department official, meanwhile, confirmed that Fisher was also under scrutiny as part of the investigation.

Henderson has worked in the past as an aide to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Although already serving as the chief of protocol, she still faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate amid efforts to give her the rank of ambassador, which at times comes with the chief’s job.

Fisher previously had worked in the first lady’s office at the White House and also for Christie in the past.

The State Department official described Henderson as a generally likable person who nonetheless may not have always acted in the best interest of the protocol office. Fisher was not experienced enough for the position she held, the official contended.

State Department spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. The Office of Protocol referred POLITICO to the spokespeople when asked to be connected to Henderson and Fisher. Lawler, however, did weigh in.

“There was no workplace violence. All of those accusations were exaggerated and/or false,” Lawler told POLITICO on Wednesday.

Appearing Wednesday at a news conference at the State Department, Pompeo declined to elaborate on the circumstances that led to Linick’s firing. But the secretary emphasized it was he who recommended the inspector general be terminated, saying, “I frankly should have done it some time ago.”

Pompeo dismissed as “patently false” accusations that the ouster represented an act of political retaliation, claiming he had “no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general’s office” and alluding to recent reports about his alleged misconduct.

“I’ve seen the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. I mean, it’s all just crazy. It’s all crazy stuff,” Pompeo said. He did concede, however, there was “one exception.”

“I was asked a series of questions in writing. I responded to those questions with respect to a particular investigation. That was some time earlier this year, as best I can recall,” Pompeo said, appearing to refer to the revelation in a New York Times story that he had responded to written questions about his handling of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“I responded to those questions. I don’t know the scope, I don’t know the nature of that investigation, other than what I would have seen from the nature of the questions that I was presented,” Pompeo continued. “I did what was right. I don’t know if that investigation is continuing. I don’t know if that investigation has been closed out. I don’t have any sense of that.”

The secretary went on to accuse Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of leaking damaging stories to members of the media, and invoked the New Jersey lawmaker’s 2015 indictment on federal corruption charges. The Justice Department dropped its case against Menendez in 2018.

“I don’t get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted. … A man for whom his Senate colleagues, bipartisan, said basically that he was taking bribes,” Pompeo told reporters. “That’s not someone who I look to for ethics guidance. And so I’ll continue to do the right thing to make sure the State Department is served by every employee, including our inspector general.”

“The facts speak for themselves,” Menendez fired back in a statement. “Secretary Pompeo now faces an investigation into both this improper firing and into his attempt to cover up his inappropriate and possibly illegal actions. Not surprisingly, he has lashed out at me and others conducting congressional oversight. The fact that Secretary Pompeo is now trying diversion tactics by attempting to smear me is as predictable as it is shameful. The secretary should focus on answering questions and getting his story straight as to why he wanted to target IG Linick.”

Pompeo did not directly address concerns about the protocol office, which handles a variety of tasks related to diplomatic engagements and encounters, ranging from handling gift giving involving foreign leaders to explaining the proper behavior U.S. officials should display in other countries.

On Tuesday, NBC News reported that State Department officials had growing concerns about a series of events called “Madison Dinners” — named after former President James Madison, and the diplomatic reception room at State Department headquarters that bears his name — that have been hosted by Pompeo and his wife since he took over as secretary in spring 2018.

Some U.S. diplomats felt the dinners were an extravagant use of taxpayer dollars that were more aimed at bolstering Pompeo’s political connections ahead of a potential future run for office. Some noted that if the dinners were designed to improve the stature of the department, they should have been publicized. And if they were genuinely focused on foreign policy, then State Department diplomats with knowledge of the subject matters should have been invited, some said.

The person familiar with the issue said that the inspector general’s office was aware of concerns about the dinners, but that at first glance they appeared to be carefully organized to meet any legal requirements.

The dinners had come up as part of Linick’s look into the activities of another State Department official, Toni Porter, a longtime confidante who has accompanied Pompeo from his days as a Kansas congressman to the CIA to Foggy Bottom.

State Department officials have raised concerns about whether Porter was appropriately spending her time on government matters, as opposed to topics that were more personal or political in nature when it came to the Pompeos.

Porter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that Pompeo should testify before Congress, describing both Trump’s pattern of firing inspectors general and the reports coming out about Pompeo in recent days as “scandalous.”

“He should come up and testify, but he should be coming up here to testify in general,” Pelosi told reporters of Pompeo. “Let’s see how this unfolds. It’s just in the last 24 hours or 36 hours that we’re seeing what this is. But what it is, what we know so far, is scandalous.”

Pelosi conceded that hearing from Pompeo was unlikely given Trump’s icy relationship with her and other Democrats. The White House has made a show of blocking other high profile administration officials from testifying in the House while allowing them to appear before the Republican-controlled Senate.

“It’s very hard to get the administration to honor its responsibilities to the American people by testifying before Congress,” Pelosi said. “As you see, they’ve sort of cut out the House all together.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.