After President Trump fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, he didn’t bother disguising his true reason for doing so: because that IG had conducted his lawful duties in a manner that resulted in Trump being held accountable for his misdeeds and corruption.

As Trump himself put it, Michael Atkinson, the fired IG, had done a “terrible job.” How so? Easy: Atkinson had evaluated the whistleblower complaint exposing Trump’s Ukraine shakedown scheme with procedural correctness.

“He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress,” Trump said. That’s what Atkinson was supposed to do, and the complaint turned out to be almost entirely accurate, leading to Trump getting justly impeached over the extraordinary misconduct that came out as a result.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) just announced that the House Intelligence Committee, which he chairs, will be examining Trump’s firing of Atkinson. And buried in Schiff’s letter making this announcement is an unsettling glimpse of where all this could be going.

Schiff’s letter, which is addressed to acting director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, expresses Schiff’s concern that Grenell is politicizing that office on Trump’s behalf, noting that every Senate-confirmed person in the DNI has been removed.

Schiff’s letter argues that Atkinson “acted with the highest integrity and remarkable professionalism,” while being subjected to a campaign of attacks by Trump and his allies simply for adhering to his oath of office.

Notably, in the section announcing the investigation of Atkinson’s dismissal, Schiff calls on Grenell to confirm in writing whether he ever exercised his “authority” to “prohibit” any other “investigation, inspection, audit, or review” that Atkinson might have undertaken.

Schiff’s letter also calls on Grenell to stipulate in writing that he “will not permit retaliation or reprisals against anyone who has made, or in the future makes, protected disclosures of misconduct.”

Who might make such reprisals against such protected disclosures? Why, one Donald J. Trump, of course.

Those are very suggestive moves by Schiff. They in effect throw down the gauntlet and challenge Grenell not to stipulate to those things.

Ned Price, a former senior National Security Council official and CIA analyst, told me that if Grenell refuses to make these stipulations — which is plausible if not likely — it will underscore how abnormal this administration truly is.

“His decision not to answer would be incredibly telling,” Price said.

Price added that a failure on Grenell’s part to state that he hadn’t interfered in any other ongoing investigations, or a refusal to pledge to defend employees in the future, might signal a willingness to allow Trump to proceed with a “campaign of retaliation.”

This a reasonable concern because there already is such a campaign of retaliation. As noted above, Trump blithely admitted that’s why he fired Atkinson.

Trump also cheerfully revealed that he removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a leading impeachment witness, for being “insubordinate” when he “reported” on Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president. In other words, Vindman disloyally told the truth about Trump’s corruption.

Meanwhile, Trump just raged at another inspector general for reporting that numerous hospitals around the country badly need medical supplies to save U.S. lives — the heresy here being that this revealed Trump’s monumental failures on coronavirus.

Price noted that if all of this continues, as it almost surely will, one possible worst-case scenario might be that we could see an effort to ferret out the whistleblower himself. “This would be a huge red line,” Price said, and a signal that Trump “feels no limits whatsoever.”

Another reasonable possibility, Price suggested, might be stepped-up retaliation against career analysts who concluded that Russia had interfered in the last election on Trump’s behalf. Price said this would have the “ultimate chilling effect for the intelligence community,” which would be particularly worrisome at a time when Russia is expected to interfere again on Trump’s behalf.

It’s worth stressing that Trump’s purging isn’t just retaliatory, it’s forward-looking, too. By removing officials who committed the sin of trying to defend the rule of law from his efforts to corrupt it, Trump sends a message to others about what awaits them if they try to stand in the way.

Now, maybe none of this will happen. But if Grenell does decline to stipulate to those things, we will have been placed on clear notice that the purging will probably get much, much worse.

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