The whistleblower complaint centered on Trump’s efforts last summer to pressure the Ukrainian government to undertake investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, moves that would undermine a likely rival to Trump in his reelection bid.
Trump informed lawmakers in a letter late Friday night that he was removing Atkinson. “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general,’’ he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.”
Trump has faulted Atkinson repeatedly for letting the complaint reach Congress and also as enabling what he has called a “hoax” of an impeachment, administration officials said.
He has weighed for months removing Atkinson, whom he picked for the job in late 2017, but has been periodically talked out of it.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the reason for or the timing of the firing.
Trump in recent days has renewed his agitation against the “deep state”—what he perceives as politically-motivated enemies in the ranks of career employees, one administration official said, after a Justice Department inspector general report on FBI errors in more than two dozen national security surveillance applications. In fact, Atkinson had no role in the applications.
Atkinson, a respected and understated lawyer who served for more than 15 years in the Justice Department, was informed Friday night that Trump intended to fire him and was placed on administrative leave immediately, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
The statute requires that both intelligence committees be notified by the president 30 days before the date of the inspector general’s removal. But placing Atkinson on administrative leave effectively sidelines him immediately, the aide said.
Trump’s action drew immediate condemnation from senior Democratic lawmakers and intelligence community veterans.
“Whether it’s Lt. Col. Vindman, Captain Crozier, or Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson: President Trump fires people for telling the truth,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “Michael Atkinson is a man of integrity who has served our nation for almost two decades. Being fired for having the courage to speak truth to power makes him a patriot.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was a Ukraine specialist on the White House National Security Council who testified during the House impeachment about monitoring Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was that call that raised concerns Trump was pressing Zelensky for a political favor. Vindman was removed from his White House post days after Trump was acquitted by the Senate.
Capt. Brett Crozier was the commander of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who was removed after the leaking of a blunt letter he wrote to his superiors about what he saw as insufficient measures to fight a coronavirus outbreak aboard the vessel.
“In the midst of a national emergency, it is unconscionable that the president is once again attempting to undermine the integrity of the intelligence community by firing yet another intelligence official simply for doing his job,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation’s intelligence agencies.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) called the move “yet another blatant attempt by the president to gut the independence of the intelligence community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing.” Said Schiff: “At a time when our country is dealing with a national emergency and needs people in the intelligence community to speak truth to power, the president’s dead of night decision puts our country and national security at even greater risk.”
Mark Zaid, the attorney who previously represented the whistleblower, who alleged that Trump had solicited Ukraine’s interference in the 2020 presidential election, called Atkinson’s firing “nothing but a delayed retaliatory action taken against an independent IG for his proper handling of a whistleblower complaint.”
Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson follows the removal of other senior intelligence community officials, including the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, in what several current and former officials have called a “purge” of career, non-partisan leaders.
“This step should come as no surprise given the president’s well documented belief that personal loyalty and fealty — rather than professional qualifications and demonstrated integrity — are the principle requirements for service at senior levels in this administration,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, a former director of the counterterrorism center.
Atkinson was sworn in as the inspector general in May 2018. He kept a low profile but was thrust into the spotlight after alerting Congress to the existence of the whistleblower complaint. He found the complaint to be both “credible” and “urgent,” two criteria under the statute that trigger a requirement that Congress be notified within seven days.
That set off a tussle between the administration and the House Intelligence Committee, which was finally resolved when then-Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire released the complaint to Congress. The following day, the White House released a rough transcript of the call between Zelensky and Trump.