WASHINGTON — A senior State Department official who helped Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bypass a congressional freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushed the agency’s inspector general to drop an investigation into whether that effort was illegal, the former inspector general told lawmakers, according to a transcript released Wednesday.
The senior official, Marik String, now the department’s top lawyer, was acting chief of the agency’s political-military affairs bureau in early 2019 when Mr. Pompeo and aides tried to come up with a means of circumventing Congress on a sale of 22 batches of munitions worth $8.1 billion, much of it made by Raytheon. Lawmakers from both parties had held up the sale because the Persian Gulf nations had been using American-made weapons in an air war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.
President Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general, Steve A. Linick, last month at the urging of Mr. Pompeo. Three congressional committees are investigating whether Mr. Pompeo made the recommendation to retaliate for inquiries tied to the secretary that Mr. Linick was overseeing. Mr. Linick had opened at least two such inquiries — one into the arms sale and one into potential misuse of agency employees for the benefit of Mr. Pompeo and his wife, Susan Pompeo.
Mr. Pompeo declared an emergency over Iran in May 2019 to push through the sale. At the request of Congress, Mr. Linick opened an investigation last June into the legality of that.
But during a meeting over the winter, perhaps in late 2019, Mr. String and Brian Bulatao, a top State Department official and friend of Mr. Pompeo, tried to persuade Mr. Linick to end the inquiry, Mr. Linick told lawmakers in an interview last Wednesday.
Congressional investigators were alarmed by news of Mr. String’s involvement, which appeared to be a conflict of interest, given his central role in formulating Mr. Pompeo’s use of the emergency declaration, Democratic aides said.
Mr. String joined Mr. Bulatao in telling Mr. Linick that his office “shouldn’t be doing the work because it was a policy matter not within the I.G.’s jurisdiction,” Mr. Linick told lawmakers, adding that he told officials he was investigating enactment of policy. Mr. Linick also said Mr. Bulatao did not explicitly “say stop our work.”
Since 2013, Mr. Linick had led a team of hundreds of employees in investigating fraud and waste in the State Department. He is known to be cautious and nonpartisan.
Mr. String, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the political-military affairs bureau who served as the unit’s acting head from January to May 2019, played an important part in the run-up to the emergency declaration. He oversaw the process that led to the declaration by Mr. Pompeo — convening meetings, offering guidance and briefing the secretary on progress, according to an American government official with knowledge of Mr. String’s role.
Mr. Pompeo notified Congress of the emergency declaration on the afternoon of May 24, 2019, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. That same day, Mr. String was promoted to be the department’s acting legal adviser. Congressional officials have raised questions about that appointment.
The three congressional committees investigating the inspector general’s firing asked Mr. Linick to do an interview with them last Wednesday. They have also asked seven State Department employees to be interviewed, including Mr. String and Mr. Bulatao, but none agreed to the request.
Mr. Linick told lawmakers that Mr. Bulatao on occasion tried to “bully” him. And he said the two officials raised the possibility in their meeting that there might be “a privilege issue” that would prevent Mr. Linick from continuing his investigation. But a privilege issue only exists when a party is acting as a lawyer, and neither official was in that role during the formulation of the emergency declaration.
Mr. Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday that he had not read the transcript of Mr. Linick’s interview with Congress. He argued that the inspector general is supposed to “work for the agency head — that’s me — and they are supposed to deliver and help make that organization better.”
“It’s not what Mr. Linick did,” he added.
Mr. Pompeo did not agree to be interviewed by Mr. Linick for the arms sale inquiry, and submitted a written statement instead. Investigators were close to finishing the investigation this spring and briefed senior State Department officials on findings in early March.
Lawmakers say officials have informally told them that the administration plans to sell another package of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, worth $478 million, and to grant Raytheon a license to expand its manufacturing footprint in the kingdom.
Mr. Linick also told lawmakers that he informed Mr. Bulatao, as well as Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, and other top agency officials in late 2019 of the inquiry into Mr. Pompeo’s potential misuse of employees and requested documents from the agency. Mr. Pompeo has indicated he did not know about this inquiry, but Democratic aides say that is unlikely given what Mr. Linick has said.
Asked about the crackdowns on protesters seeking racial justice in the United States, Mr. Pompeo said Wednesday the State Department was investigating complaints from other nations that foreign journalists covering the demonstrations had been attacked by American security forces.
“We will address them in a way that is appropriate to try to address any concerns those nations may have about their journalists, who we too do our level best to protect,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has said it is investigating reports of about 300 episodes in which journalists have faced such attacks. Videos show security forces last week attacking two Australian journalists outside the White House during a wider assault on protesters.
Mr. Pompeo dismissed a question about the Trump administration’s heavy-handed tactics by saying that foreign authoritarian governments did much worse when they “repress their people.”
Mr. Pompeo sent an email to State Department employees on Wednesday emphasizing the same points, saying, “America remains the greatest nation in the history of civilization.”
Edward Wong and Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Michael LaForgia from New York. Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Washington.