The move is merely the latest example of Trump pushing out someone with a degree of oversight over him personally or whose actions impacted investigations of him:
- The first big one was James. B. Comey, the firing of the FBI director that Trump explained by saying he had the Russia investigation on his mind at the time.
- Trump also successfully pushed for the removal of Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, who authorized the Russia probe and who was terminated just before he would receive full retirement benefits.
- Jeff Sessions eventually resigned as attorney general at Trump’s request after the president complained for months and months that he had not taken control of the same probe.
- He also tried to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s testimony.
- Trump recently removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council and sacked his European Union ambassador, Gordon Sondland, after their testimony about the Ukraine scandal led to Trump’s impeachment.
The trend is clear: Trump has few qualms about removing (or trying to remove) people who get him in trouble, even if it is a pretty transparently and self-serving act by him. The moves are both punitive and send a message to future would-be critics that raising concerns about Trump or probing him comes at a cost.
But what exactly was Atkinson’s offense here?
In his letter to Congress, Trump does not really explain that, except to assert his power to do such things and say he had lost “confidence” in Atkinson. Trump says “it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is not longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”
But Trump has for months made it pretty clear what Atkinson had done that has most alienated him: He decided to forward the whistleblower complaint.
Atkinson’s most significant action was in making determinations that the complaint about Trump’s actions with regard to Ukraine was both “credible” and “urgent” — classifications that required the complaint be sent to Congress, which then probed Trump.
As for the former determination that the complaint was “credible?” Trump has repeatedly alleged it was part of a hoax against him and that it was “very inaccurate.” But both the rough transcript of the call released by the White House and witnesses in the impeachment probe repeatedly confirmed the vast majority of what the whistleblower had said.
As The Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler wrote after reviewing the whistleblower’s key claims one-by-one: “ … Thus far, with the exception of some minor details, virtually all of the specific points of the complaint have held up and been confirmed. Trump has no basis to claim the whistleblower complaint is ‘very inaccurate.’” Kessler gave Trump four Pinocchios for the claim — the highest degree of falsehood.
In other words, whether you believe Trump deserved to be impeached over the matter, it is very difficult to argue that the whistleblower complaint was not “credible.”
As for whether it was “urgent?” This one is more subjective. But the fallout suggests that, whether the whistleblower complaint warranted impeachment or any other sanction, this was indeed something that concerned lawmakers — including many Republican ones.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) would eventually become the first senator from a president’s party to vote to remove them from office in an impeachment trial. No other Republicans voted for either impeachment or removal, but plenty of them said Trump’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was indeed inappropriate and/or that it raised important questions. We have also since learned that many Republicans were concerned about Trump’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine, which evidence suggested might have been part of a quid pro quo. At the end of the impeachment process, some Republicans even assured us Trump had learned his lesson.
Then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire also at the time defended both the whistleblower and Atkinson. “I have every reason to believe that they have done everything by the book and followed the law,” Maguire said.
The Justice Department’s inspector general Michael Horowitz referenced that quote in an extraordinary statement Friday night defending Atkinson. "Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the inspector general community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight,” Horowitz said.
Without the whistleblower complaint, lawmakers might never have been given the chance to decide whether this rose to the level of being corrupt and worthy of removal from office. And really, that is what Atkinson’s role in this was: passing along that valid and concerning information and letting Congress decide. Trump may regard this all as a “hoax,” but his efforts to dismiss the whistleblower complaint as a fictitious nothingburger have been contradicted by both the evidence and his fellow Republicans.
Despite that, Atkinson has now become the latest to see his head placed on the chopping block. The message Trump is sending with that is both stunning and crystal clear.