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Watchdog Firing Came Amid Probe of Trump’s Friend, the U.S. Ambassador in London

(Photos: Billy McCrorie / Geograph, Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Flickr; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of the State Department’s top watchdog in May was likely motivated in part by a review into alleged misconduct by the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, a longtime friend of the president, sources told the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The inspection report, which went to the London embassy for comment in late April, about two weeks before then-Inspector General Steve Linick’s firing, has been sitting on the desk of his replacement—who unexpectedly announced Wednesday that he would be leaving his post Friday.

The inspector general review, first reported by CNN, raises new questions about Trump’s sudden dismissal of Linick, one of several in the inspector general community of watchdogs who were removed while undertaking politically sensitive probes. They may also deepen skepticism of the shifting explanations Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has provided in recent congressional testimony about why Linick was fired.

According to POGO’s sources, the watchdog’s report into the allegations is complete and has for weeks been awaiting final approval by the acting inspector general, Ambassador Stephen Akard.

Steve Linick is one of several in the inspector general community of watchdogs who were removed while undertaking politically sensitive probes.

The State Department’s Office of Inspector General examined allegations by U.S. diplomatic staff that Johnson, an owner of the New York Jets NFL team and an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, has made racist and sexist remarks in violation of anti-discrimination laws and rules.

According to a POGO source with knowledge of the operations of the London embassy, “Ambassador Johnson was concerned that if the report were published, it would be damaging to his reputation.” The ambassador was concerned enough “that if he couldn’t block it [the inspection report] he would need to rebut it,” the source told POGO.

“The fact that Ambassador Johnson is given to sexist, inappropriate comments about women, and their appearance, is very widely known in the embassy, because his comments were on a weekly, if not daily basis,” the source said. Johnson’s racist comments were less frequent, but no less damaging. “They are more than just racially insensitive, they’re also offensive,” the source said.

On Twitter, Johnson stated, “These false claims of insensitive remarks about race and gender are totally inconsistent with my longstanding record and values.”

A government finding that Johnson had made racist comments could lead to scrutiny of his ownership of the Jets. In 2017, in reaction to a Sports Illustratedexposé, the NFL launched an investigation into Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson for making racist comments in the workplace and sexually harassing staff. During the investigation, Richardson announced he would sell the team. The following year, Richardson was fined $2.75 million by the NFL and he sold the team.

Pompeo’s Shifting Explanations

On May 15, Trump terminated Linick, stating that he had lost confidence in him but initially offering no further explanation. In remarks made to reporters after firing Linick, Trump said, “I was asked to by the State Department, by Mike,” to terminate him. Then, several days later, a State Department official told the Washington Post Linick was fired for allegedly leaking inspector general reports last year on political retaliation inside the State Department, to mediaoutlets.

Yet multiple media outlets have reported that even before Trump fired Linick, then-acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine investigated the leak allegation and concluded that neither Linick nor others within the watchdog office improperly released the report. (Fine was himself abruptly removed from his position by Trump in April, shortly after being named to chair the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is tasked with overseeing federal coronavirus-related efforts.)

I was asked by the State Department, by Mike, to terminate Linick

President Donald Trump

In Senate testimony on July 30, Pompeo gave a new reason for the firing, claiming there was dismal employee morale in the inspector general’s office under Linick’s watch. Of “38 assistant secretary level bureaus,” Pompeo said, “the IG's office was the worst survey results of any of those 38.”

But an examination of the data shows a strikingly different picture.

The department’s Office of Inspector General in fact had the third-highest engagement score of any State subcomponent in 2019, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s analysis of Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data from 2019, the most recent publicly available.

Instead, it was Pompeo’s office—the Office of Secretary of State—that had the lowest employee engagement score of any State Department subcomponent in the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” list. Indeed, it ranked near the bottom government-wide, 404th out of 420 federal subcomponents.

In congressional testimony, Pompeo also continued to accuse Linick of acting improperly in connection with the leaked report.

“We had a very sensitive inspector general report,” Pompeo said. “When the final draft was prepared, it leaked. The Politico reporter, I think, said it came from two people close to the investigation.”

Pompeo failed to acknowledge during his Senate testimony that Linick had been exonerated of leaking the report.

Without sufficient explanation, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self-interests are to blame.

Senator Chuck Grassley

In a June congressional interview, Linick said “there was no valid reason” for his dismissal, which he says occurred without any prior warning. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has said the White House “failed to address” whether the president had any “good reason” to fire Linick or the intelligence community inspector general, whom Trump fired earlier this year after the watchdog sent a whistleblower complaint to Congress—as was legally required—that sparked impeachment proceedings last year.

“Without sufficient explanation, the American people will be left speculating whether political or self-interests are to blame. That’s not good for the presidency or government accountability,” Grassley said on the Senate floor.

This week, House Democrats subpoenaed four of Pompeo’s top aides as part of an ongoing congressional investigation into Linick’s firing.

Linick declined to comment to POGO.

Other Matters Linick Was Investigating When He Was Fired

Linick’s review of Johnson’s statements was originally part of another investigation, into an allegation that Trump had asked Johnson to urge the British government to send business to Trump’s Turnberry golf course in Scotland, according to USA Today.

Another sensitive investigative matter Linick’s office was reviewing when he was removed was an “emergency” State department-approved sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a controversial U.S. ally that has forged cozy ties with Trump and top administration officials, including Pompeo, who is seen as having the president’s ear.

The watchdog office was also examining whistleblower allegations that Pompeo abused taxpayer resources by having staff perform personal errands for him and his wife.

Akard, Linick’s replacement, had recused himself from involvement in the pending inquiries into Pompeo’s alleged misconduct, but not from the Johnson matter.

"Secretary Pompeo has addressed these matters extensively and publicly. We have nothing to add to his comments," said a State Department spokesperson.

The Office of Inspector General had no comment in response to POGO's questions.

Liz Hempowicz and Scott Amey contributed to this report.