State Department Inspector General asks House staff to return to DC for an 'urgent' briefing

State Department Inspector General asks House staff to return to DC for an 'urgent' briefing
Steve Linick via MSNBC Screengrab

On Tuesday evening, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick requested that senior congressional staff members attend a private briefing on Wednesday afternoon to deal with “urgent” matter. This includes calling back some staffers who were outside the Washington, D.C., area during the current recess. It is unclear what Linick needs to relate to Congress—sources have already indicated that this is connected to the current impeachment proceedings and White House actions regarding Ukraine. What is clear is that by using the word “urgent,” Linick is signaling that, as in the whistleblower complaint filed with the inspector general of the intelligence community, whatever is at stake here is not simply a policy concern, but a matter of immediate national importance.

To call this an unusual request from the State Department IG is underselling it. Not only is Linick asking staffers to scramble back to Washington from all over the country, but he’s doing so at a time when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is out of the country. And he’s doing it in the middle of an exchange of letters between Pompeo and Congress in which Pompeo has declared his intention to prevent State Department officials from giving testimony as part of an impeachment inquiry.

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire may have overplayed the phrase during his own hearing the previous week, but this is a genuinely unprecedented situation.

What does Linick want to say? It’s impossible to know. Some rumors have suggested that the inspector general, along with possibly some other officials within the State Department, is objecting to Pompeo making moves to block their testimony, or threats to punish anyone who complies with a congressional subpoena. Until now, dozens of officials in the Trump White House have refused to testify before Congress on claims of privilege, or simply by stating that they were under orders to do so. However, that’s much less likely to prove sufficient now that the House has initiated a formal impeachment inquiry. Linick may be attempting to mediate this dispute in some sense by providing rules under which State Department staff should or would agree to testify.

On the other hand, Linick may have summoned staffers to meet with him for reasons that are still completely unknown. This meeting may turn out to be a dud, but it has every indication of being a bombshell.

Providing grounds for the argument that Congress should not be talking to State Department officials would seem to be difficult. Of the five officials so far subpoenaed by House committees, four are mentioned by name in the “transcript” of the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Two of them, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, have already agreed to appear.

However, there is another name that appears in that not-a-transcript, and that name belongs to someone now known to have been present in the room for the call between Trump and Zelensky—Mike Pompeo. Pompeo has already demonstrated that he has been deceptive about his role in Ukraine. If he did order employees not to testify, or threaten to take actions against those who did, that’s not just contempt on Pompeo’s part—it’s deliberate and indisputable obstruction.

In any case, after a week in which new stories seem to be exploding at every hour, this one could be thermonuclear.

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