WASHINGTON — The State Department inspector general fired by President Trump on Friday was investigating whether the administration had unlawfully declared an “emergency” last year to allow the resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their war in Yemen, according to a Democratic member of Congress who asked for the inquiry.
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, said that investigation might have been “another reason” for the firing of the inspector general, Steve A. Linick. The White House announced the firing Friday night, and officials said the recommendation to remove Mr. Linick had come from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It remains unclear exactly what prompted the firing of Mr. Linick, since the inspector general’s office conducts multiple, simultaneous investigations into the activities of the State Department and its officials. Mr. Linick’s office was close to concluding the investigation into the arms sales.
“We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed,” Mr. Engel said.
A State Department spokeswoman said the department could not comment on any open investigations by the inspector general, but noted that even with Mr. Linick’s departure, investigations would be continued by an acting inspector general. Mr. Trump appointed Ambassador Stephen J. Akard, the director of the Office of Foreign Missions, for that role. Mr. Akard, an associate of Vice President Mike Pence, failed to get congressional support for a top State Department job under Mr. Pompeo’s predecessor.
The decision to resume lethal aid to the Saudis and Emiratis was a major initiative undertaken by Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump, who often discussed the importance of the weapons sales with officers of Raytheon, the Massachusetts-based defense contractor that lobbied heavily to get a 2017 suspension of sales lifted. Congress had imposed the suspension because of discoveries that bomb fragments traced to Raytheon by investigators were linked to a series of Saudi bombings that killed civilians, including children.
Mr. Trump had pushed to resume the sales in 2018, justifying it as a jobs issue.
“I want Boeing and I want Lockheed and I want Raytheon to take those orders and to hire lots of people to make that incredible equipment,” he said.
But the effort to restart the sales was delayed by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident, Washington Post columnist and American resident. His death, and the suspected role of the Saudi leadership in ordering the killing, led to calls for a full end to military aid to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Pompeo broke the logjam a year ago, declaring an “emergency” over Iran’s activities in the Middle East that enabled him to sidestep the congressional ban and approve restarting the sales. That started the resumption of more normal exchanges with the Saudi government, as the Trump administration tried to move past Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia and Iran are archrivals in the region.
In June, after congressional hearings with State Department officials into the rationale for declaring an emergency over Iran, Mr. Engel sent a letter to Mr. Linick asking him to open an investigation. Mr. Engel’s office then tracked the investigation sporadically once it had begun, a Democratic aide said. The office learned by early spring, before the coronavirus forced lockdowns across the United States, that Mr. Linick had sent preliminary findings to the State Department.
This weekend, after Mr. Trump notified Congress of the firing of Mr. Linick, Mr. Engel’s office learned more details of the circumstances around the arms sale investigation, leading them to think that the inquiry might have contributed to the sudden move against Mr. Linick by Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump.
The separate inquiry into the potential misuse of the political appointee was still a potential factor, and there might be other motivations for the firing that remain unknown, an aide said.