Atkinson responded to his firing Sunday in an unusual letter — unusual because inspectors general generally don’t comment on such things. He made clear he is a nonpartisan official and carried out his duties independently. He said he believed that’s exactly why he was fired.
“It is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial inspector general,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson doesn’t directly accuse the president of this, but he sure points in that direction. In perhaps the most important part of the letter, the end, he expands on the danger he sees in what’s happening:
Finally, a message for any government employee or contractor who believes they have learned of or observed unethical, wasteful, or illegal behavior in the federal government. The American people deserve an honest and effective government. They are counting on you to use authorized channels to bravely speak up — there is no disgrace in doing so. It is important to remember, as others have said, that the need for secrecy in the United States Intelligence Community is not a grant of power, but a grant of trust. Our government benefits when individuals are encouraged to report suspected fraud, waste, and abuse. I have faith that my colleagues in Inspectors General Offices throughout the federal government will continue to operate effective and independent whistleblower programs, and that they will continue to do everything in their power to protect the rights of whistleblowers. Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.
It’s abundantly clear what Atkinson is saying here. He’s pointing to the concerted effort from Trump and his allies to attack the whistleblower — and perhaps to his own firing — as evidence of a campaign to stifle internal dissent. The cumulative effect, even if you believe it’s somehow unintentional, is to discourage future whistleblowers and witnesses against the president. Trump also recently fired key impeachment witnesses Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and then-Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland — with the former looking particularly punitive.
As I wrote Saturday, the firing of Atkinson also appears especially punitive. Trump offered no reason for it Friday except to say that Atkinson had lost his confidence. In the absence of any other reason, it’s just about impossible to assume this is about anything other than Atkinson having forwarded the whistleblower complaint — a complaint Trump has baselessly accused of being fictional and part of a political effort to take him down.
When asked about it Saturday, the whistleblower situation was the only thing Trump cited.
“I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible,” Trump said. “He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report — it was fake. It was totally wrong. It was about my conversation with the president of Ukraine. He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress, with an emergency. Okay? Not a big Trump fan — that, I can tell you.”
Trump’s characterization of the whistleblower complaint is completely wrong. Every key claim in it was confirmed by evidence or witnesses in the impeachment inquiry. It accurately described the situation as we have come to understand it. Whether it warranted Trump’s impeachment or removal from office? That’s a subjective call. But it doesn’t mean the information was wrong or the complaint was bogus.
Trump is attacking Atkinson in the same way he attacked the whistleblower, suggesting Atkinson was complicit in bringing a politically motivated and fictitious complaint to light, despite the complaint being overwhelmingly accurate (and Trump’s fellow Republicans coming to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his behavior with regard to Ukraine).
If you’re an inspector general, a witness with derogatory information about the president, or a would-be whistleblower, the message has become abundantly clear: We will smear you. (To be clear, these are smears because the claims used against them have generally been false and/or highly speculative.) Nonpartisan people won’t be allowed to speak up without experiencing the kind of retribution that is generally reserved for political actors. This will be painful for you.
Atkinson doesn’t say all of this in so many words. But he clearly had an intent with his letter Sunday. It’s a stark warning about the danger to democracy posed by this increasingly overt campaign by Trump and his allies.
He also doesn’t seem to want to let a Friday night news dump disappear into the ether.