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GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley lifts hold he placed on Trump nominees over inspector general firings

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Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) questions Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation in the Dirksen Senate Office Building June 3, 2020 in Washington DC.

Greg Nash | Getty Images

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, withdrew the holds he placed on President Donald Trump’s nominees after the Trump administration provided explanations for why it fired two inspectors general. 

But even though he lifted the holds, Grassley said he disagreed that the administration’s reasons justified the removal of one of the watchdogs.

“My objection to these nominees was designed to prompt compliance with the IG Reform Act, which the president has now done” with regard to both inspectors general, Grassley said in a statement posted Thursday in the congressional record.

Grassley, a self-described government accountability advocate, said earlier this month he would block two of Trump’s nominees until the administration provided good reasons for terminating Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson and State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.

“All I want is a reason,” Grassley tweeted at the time.

Grassley’s statement Thursday said that he has since received letters from the administration that “fulfill the President’s requirement to provide Congress reasons for the removal” of the watchdogs as required by law.

Grassley had been blocking the nominations of Christopher Miller to be the director of the National Counterterrorism Center and Marshall Billingslea to be the State Department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security.

Both firings have been roundly criticized by Democrats who accuse the White House of retaliating against the watchdogs within the administration. Democrats in the House and Senate launched an investigation into Linick’s removal.

Trump fired Linick in a surprise, late-night move on May 15 on a recommendation from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was involved in at least two investigations reportedly being conducted by the watchdog’s office at the time. 

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Trump said he lost “confidence” in Linick, without providing further explanation.

In April, Trump ordered the removal of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community who had flagged the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that became a major catalyst for Trump’s eventual impeachment in the House. Trump was acquitted in the Senate.

Grassley said that on June 12 he received letters from the State Department and the White House counsel.

The White House’s letter “repeats a previous letter from the White House which stated that the President had lost confidence” in Atkinson, Grassley said.

“However, the White House Counsel enclosed with that letter a transcript of President Trump providing his reasons for removing Mr. Atkinson to the press and has informed me that those reasons represent the President’s official explanation of Mr. Atkinson’s removal to Congress.” Grassley said he believes that was legally sufficient to lift the hold.

But “even though the President satisfied the requirements of the law, I do not agree that the provided reasons merited Mr. Atkinson’s removal,” Grassley said.

A spokesman for Grassley referred CNBC to a press release announcing his bill to bolster inspector general protections.

That release quotes Grassley’s congressional record statement as saying, “I do not agree with the President’s stated reasons for removing [IGs Atkinson and Linick].” But the actual statement does not appear to include that phrase.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The State Department’s letter to Grassley included its correspondence with another executive branch agency highlighting four reasons for firing Linick, “all involving the investigation of the leak of information to a news reporter pertaining to an IG report,” Grassley said.

“These claims are as of yet unverified but the President has offered an additional briefing on the matter from State Department officials,” Grassley added.

Linick, who testified as part of the Democrats’ probe of his removal, reportedly told Congress in a private interview, “The record shows that I have served without regard to politics.”

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