Pompeo confidant emerges as enforcer in fight over watchdog’s firing

In the months since joining State, Bulatao appears to have emerged as an enforcer and a shield for Pompeo in ways that are now drawing attention from Democrats probing Linick’s mid-May firing.

According to Linick, Bulatao tried to dissuade him from pursuing an investigation into how the secretary handled a Saudi arms sale, and at one point Bulatao implied he wanted to oversee a probe into Linick’s office.

Linick said he told Bulatao and other top State Department officials that he was investigating Pompeo and his wife’s use of department resources, even though Pompeo has said he had no knowledge of such a probe before he pushed for Linick’s ouster. Linick also said Bulatao tried to draw him into department activities that Linick felt he could not get involved in without compromising his role as an independent watchdog.

“Sometimes I felt he was unfamiliar with the role of inspectors general,” Linick told lawmakers and their staffers last week about Bulatao, according to a transcript of his interview released Wednesday.

Asked about Linick’s comments and Bulatao’s alleged treatment of him, Pompeo on Wednesday trashed the fired inspector general and suggested he disagreed with the longstanding tradition that such watchdogs operate independently of the institutions they examine.

“Steve Linick was a bad actor in the inspector general office here,” the secretary insisted in a session with reporters. “He didn’t take on the mission of the State Department to make us better. That’s what inspector generals are supposed to do; they 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.”

Since taking over the State Department in April 2018, Pompeo has relied upon a tight-knit group of official and unofficial advisers, some of whom he’s known for many years, and one of whom also is his wife, Susan. President Donald Trump fired Linick last month on Pompeo’s recommendation, and the storm of controversy that has ensued since has focused attention on this inner circle.

Linick was investigating the role Susan Pompeo has played at the department and whether she and her husband improperly used State Department staffers to run personal errands for them. One of those State staffers, Toni Porter, is another member of the inner circle who worked for Pompeo when he was a Republican congressman from Kansas as well as at the CIA.

Bulatao isn’t even the only fellow West Point classmate to join Pompeo at State; Pompeo’s de facto chief of staff, Ulrich Brechbuhl, also is there. But it’s Bulatao whose actions are spurring the most public concerns on the Hill and who has publicly gone to bat for his friend and boss in the wake of Linick’s firing.

Bulatao did not respond to emails seeking comment Wednesday. In an emailed statement, a State Department spokesperson called him “a consummate professional who is well respected within the Department, across the interagency, and by congressional leaders.”

The spokesperson added, “As Mr. Linick points out in his interview with Congress, he ‘never felt pressured’ to change any of the findings or conclusions of investigations and he also stated he was never asked to stop looking into any investigations.”

In a June 1 letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, as well as in an interview with The Washington Post, he has offered reasons for Pompeo’s recommendation that Trump fire Linick.

A major reason, Bulatao has said, is that Linick had failed to follow instructions from State Department leaders on how to arrange a probe into his own office over alleged leaks to the media. Bulatao also said that the department was concerned about the leaks in general, but it had no evidence that Linick was behind them.

Furthermore, Bulatao insisted in his letter that, ultimately, it’s up to the president whether to fire an inspector general. “Because Mr. Linick’s removal fell within the lawful prerogative of the executive branch, it’s difficult to understand why the Foreign Affairs Committee believes this action would warrant the time or resources contemplated by the committee’s several requests for transcribed interviews of department personnel,” Bulatao wrote.

Linick disputes Bulatao’s account of how he handled the outside probe into his office, telling lawmakers that he kept State Department leaders apprised of the steps along the way. Linick also said that Bulatao indicated he wanted “to manage the scope and direction” of that investigation into Linick and his team, which he deemed an improper breach of the office’s traditional independence. The outside probe, eventually handled by the inspector general of the Defense Department, ultimately found no evidence that Linick’s office was the source of the leaks.

Pompeo on Wednesday said he wasn’t happy with those results. “There’s still work going on,” Pompeo said. “I don’t want to comment it – on it other than to say that we have asked for a more thorough investigation than Mr. Linick had permitted.”

The leak in question involved a mid-September story written by The Daily Beast about some of the findings of a Linick-led investigation into political retaliation against career State Department employees. The story cited “two government sources involved in carrying out the investigation.”

Linick noted in his interview that by the time the story ran, his office had already shared a draft of the findings with the State Department’s leadership. So there were people outside his office who had access to the findings.

Linick told congressional investigators that Bulatao demanded that he stop looking into Pompeo’s decision to declare an emergency to push through an arms sale to Saudi Arabia against the will of Congress. Bulatao told him that he shouldn’t be investigating a policy choice, Linick said. The former inspector general said he responded by saying that while his office couldn’t make policy, it was permitted to investigate how a policy was being implemented.

When asked how Bulatao responded to that, Linick said, “He just continued to push back.” Linick did, however, say, that Bulatao “didn’t say stop our work. I don’t want to misstate. He said that we shouldn’t be doing the work because it was a policy matter not within the IG’s jurisdiction.”

According to Linick, Bulatao was also among a handful of top aides to Pompeo who was told about the inspector general’s investigation into the use of State Department resources by the secretary and his wife. Bulatao and others were told in late 2019, in part because the inspector general’s office would be obtaining documents for its investigation, Linick said.

“I wanted to make sure everybody was aware so that they wouldn’t be surprised,” Linick said, referring to the Seventh Floor – the section of the State Department’s headquarters that houses the secretary’s office.

When pressed on whether he meant he wanted Pompeo to know about the case, Linick wouldn’t directly say yes or no, only that he wanted “the entire Seventh floor” to be aware.

Pompeo told The Washington Post that he could not have pushed for Linick’s firing to retaliate against him over that investigation because he didn’t know about it. But current and former State Department officials say it beggars belief that neither Bulatao nor other aides would have mentioned such a probe to Pompeo.

Democrats now question the veracity of Bulatao’s account of Linick’s firing in his June 1 letter. They also say that firing Linick undermined the intent of statutes intended to guard the independence of inspectors general. Besides, they note, Trump has sidelined several inspectors general in recent weeks, suggesting he is trying to reduce oversight and accountability of his administration.

“I don’t know him at all. I never even heard of him,” Trump said of Linick when asked why he fired him. “I was asked to [fire Linick] by the State Department, by Mike.” The president also noted that Linick was an appointee of former President Barack Obama as another reason he fell from favor.

A Democratic congressional aide told POLITICO that although their investigation is ultimately about Pompeo’s conduct, “all roads seem to go through Mr. Bulatao, his close friend.”

“The question is, will Mr. Bulatao have the courage to tell his side of the story to Congress on the record, or will he keep hiding behind strongly worded letters?” the aide said.

Current and former State Department officials who have engaged with Bulatao describe him as bright, quick to grasp details, and not shy about making decisions. One current official said he’d pleased many by greenlighting efforts to get funding for a new building for the Foreign Service Institute.

A former senior State Department official, though, said Bulatao often delegated many tasks to his deputy and acted more as a “consigliere” – or an all-around adviser – to Pompeo, meaning he didn’t necessarily stick to the typical issues of logistics, facilities, technology and other aspects of the management undersecretary’s role.

Bulatao has often praised Pompeo in public — once calling the secretary “a great simplifier.”

“Pompeo is one of those people who can look at a very complex, very dynamic situation and get to the heart of what is the most critical thing that we need to answer in order to achieve the outcome, and that is a gift that not many people have,” Bulatao said in a local media interview.

Bulatao and Pompeo have deep ties, having met as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Pompeo made a mark at the institution, graduating first in their class. Bulatao grew up in rural Pennsylvania and he told senators during his confirmation process that both those roots and his time at West Point gave him enthusiasm for public service.

After West Point, Bulatao served as an active-duty infantry officer for seven years, and his deployments included Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq. Along the way, he became an airborne Ranger — among the most elite troops in the Army.

He later attended Harvard Business School (Pompeo attended the law school there) and over the years has held a number of private sector jobs, including with the McKinsey & Company consulting firm. His bond with Pompeo remained strong enough that the two, along with Brechbuhl, teamed up to form Thayer Aerospace, a Kansas-based firm that made components for aircraft.

The three eventually went separate ways, with Pompeo winning a House seat. But after Trump named Pompeo his CIA director, Pompeo asked Bulatao to join him in a newly recast role he called the spy agency’s chief operating officer.

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