McConnell defends Trump move to can State Department IG: 'Certainly within his authority'

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday defended President Trump's move to fire the State Department inspector general (IG), as Democrats and even some Republicans demand more information on the controversial move.

Trump fired State Department IG Steve Linick on Friday night, continuing a pattern of canning internal government watchdogs in recent weeks. Linick's firing has already prompted the top Democrats in the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees to launch an investigation and has even drawn scrutiny from some Republicans — namely Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

But McConnell backed Trump's action, which the president says he took at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and because he "no longer" had the "fullest confidence" in the IG.

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"He is certainly within his authority. He gets to hire and fire under the Constitution ... all people in the executive branch," McConnell said to reporters Tuesday.

Trump also fired Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson on April 3, and Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine on April 6, and announced a nominee to replace acting Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm on May 1.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who are the top Democrats on the foreign affairs panels, slammed the removal of Linick specifically and the other inspectors general – whom Trump had been critical of prior to their firings – more broadly in a statement announcing their investigation of the Linick matter.

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"President Trump’s unprecedented removal of Inspector General Linick is only his latest sacking of an inspector general, our government’s key independent watchdogs, from a federal agency. We unalterably oppose the politically-motivated firing of inspectors general and the President’s gutting of these critical positions," the lawmakers said.

They continued: "Reports indicate that Secretary Pompeo personally made the recommendation to fire Mr. Linick, and it is our understanding that he did so because the Inspector General had opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Secretary Pompeo himself. Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation."

The former IG was looking into whether Pompeo misused department funds for personal errands such as walking his dog, making dinner reservations and picking up his dry cleaning.

Pompeo told The Washington Post this week that he made the request to fire Linick because of his job performance.

"I went to the president and made clear to him that Inspector General Linick wasn’t performing a function in a way that we had tried to get him to, that was additive for the State Department," Pompeo said, according to the Post. "I had an IG at the CIA, not the IG that I had chosen but an IG that was there before me. He did fantastic work. He made us better. Linick wasn’t that."

Grassley, who has openly supported the independence of inspectors general and has been critical of Trump's IG firings in the past, said that the reasoning Trump provided to Congress for his firing of Linick was "insufficient."

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"Congress’s intent is clear that an expression of lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the IG Reform Act," Grassley wrote in a Monday letter. "This is in large part because Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of unfitness, wrongdoing, or failure to perform the duties of the office."

Grassley, outside of the issue of inspectors general, has largely been a defender of Trump's, particularly during the impeachment saga. Romney, the only Republican to vote for Trump's removal from office in the Senate's impeachment trial, also expressed concern over Linick's removal.

"The firings of multiple Inspectors General is unprecedented; doing so without good cause chills the independence essential to their purpose," Romney said in a tweet. "It is a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power."

Fox News' Chad Pergram, Marisa Schultz and Vandana Rambaran contributed to this report.