The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is Trump’s vilest act of retribution yet

Michael Atkinson arrives at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on a whistleblower complaint about President Trump's dealings with Ukraine on Oct. 4.
Michael Atkinson arrives at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on a whistleblower complaint about President Trump's dealings with Ukraine on Oct. 4. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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WHEN MICHAEL ATKINSON, the intelligence community’s inspector general, received a whistleblower’s complaint on Aug. 12 about President Trump’s attempt to extort political favors from Ukraine, he judged that it was “credible” and of “urgent concern.” As sworn congressional testimony later conclusively confirmed, he was right. Federal law required that in those circumstances, the whistleblower report be delivered to Congress; in a Aug. 26 letter to the acting director of national intelligence, Mr. Atkinson said the legal standard had been met.

For that, Mr. Atkinson, a respected, nonpartisan public servant with a 17-year record, was fired late Friday night by Mr. Trump, who used the cover of night and the novel coronavirus pandemic to extend his purge of officials who cooperated with the exposure or investigation of his wrongdoing. It was the most blatant and shameful act of retribution yet by a president who has sought to shut down all independent checks on his behavior.

Unlike Joseph Maguire, the acting intelligence director whom Mr. Trump previously fired, or Gordon Sondland, the dismissed ambassador to the European Union, or Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the ousted National Security Council director for Ukraine, Mr. Atkinson’s job was not to implement Trump administration policies. Rather, like inspectors general across the government, his job, as he put it in a statement he released Sunday, was to act “as an independent and impartial” auditor. “It is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations,” Mr. Atkinson wrote.

President Trump doubled down April 4 on his decision to fire Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general at the center of impeachment. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mr. Trump, whose autocratic impulses have been swelled by the abject failure of Congress to check them, did not pretend otherwise. “He did a terrible job,” he told reporters Saturday. “He took a fake report and brought it to Congress with an emergency, Okay? Not a big Trump fan, I can tell you.” He further complained that Mr. Atkinson “never came in to see me” before forwarding the whistleblower complaint.

The disregard for truth and the rule of law laced through that rant is breathtaking. First, as a number of Republican senators subsequently acknowledged, the complaint that Mr. Atkinson forwarded was not fake but an accurate description of the pressure Mr. Trump placed on Ukraine’s president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden. Contrary to the president’s suggestion, Mr. Atkinson’s duty was not to consult him about the whistleblower complaint — much less to be a “Trump fan” — but to determine whether the allegation was credible and, if so, forward it to Congress while protecting the whistleblower.

Mr. Atkinson did that, scrupulously. His reward was to have his career upended by a president who regards the U.S. government as his personal satrapy. Once again, congressional Republicans are unwilling to check Mr. Trump’s abuse; apart from a meek request from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) for “written reasons” for Mr. Atkinson’s removal, they have been silent.

In his statement, Mr. Atkinson himself appealed to government employees and contractors to speak up when they observe “unethical, wasteful, or illegal behavior. . . . Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.” We trust there will be more whistleblowers, but thanks to this president’s wanton political purges and the failure of Congress to resist them, doing their duty will take more courage than should be required of any public servant.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this editorial: The integrity of intelligence oversight is at risk

Paul Waldman: Make Trump look bad? You’ll get fired.

Jonathan Turley: Paranoid or presidential? Perhaps both, but Trump broke no laws when he ousted Vindman.

Jennifer Rubin: Biden to Trump: Here’s how to act like a president

Max Boot: Trump’s ‘Friday night massacre’ is just the beginning. I fear what’s to come.