WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has informed Congress that he is firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community who alerted lawmakers to the whistleblower complaint that led to the president’s impeachment.
In letters sent to the congressional intelligence committees late Friday night, without warning, Trump told lawmakers that he had lost confidence in Atkinson, who has served as the watchdog for US spy agencies since 2018.
“As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as President, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General,” Trump wrote. “That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”
In September, Atkinson told the intelligence committees about the existence of the whistleblower complaint, which alleged that the president has misused the powers of his office to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden. Atkinson had found the complaint to be credible, but Joseph Maguire, then the acting director of national intelligence, blocked it from being sent to Congress. The whistleblower complaint became the basis for Trump’s impeachment in the fall and winter.
Trump reportedly considered firing Atkinson months ago, privately complaining that the longtime career public servant had been disloyal.
On Saturday, Trump told reporters that Atkinson was "a disgrace" and criticized him for alerting Congress to the whistleblower complaint, which the inspector general was required to do by law.
“I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible," Trump said during a coronavirus briefing at the White House. "He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress.”
"He never even came into to see me. How can you do that without seeing the person?" Trump later added.
The whistleblower complaint was largely corroborated during the impeachment inquiry by witness testimony, documents, and a transcript of the president's July call with the Ukrainian president.
In his letter, Trump said that the firing would take effect 30 days from now. “At a later date, I will be submitting to the Senate my nomination of an individual for this position who has my full confidence and who meets the appropriate qualifications,” Trump concluded. Congress is currently in recess until at least late April as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
Atkinson's dismissal received immediate backlash from the Democratic leaders of the intelligence committees.
“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,” Sen. Mark Warner, the vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The work of the intelligence community has never been about loyalty to a single individual; it’s about keeping us all safe from those who wish to do our country harm. We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation’s intelligence agencies.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, called the decision “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.
“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,” Schiff said in a statement.
“Moreover, this retribution against a distinguished public servant for doing his job and informing Congress of an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint is a direct affront to the entire inspector general system” Schiff added. “It undermines the transparency and oversight the American people expect of their government, and in its absence will undoubtedly lead to even greater corruption in the Administration.”
Republicans began weighing in on Atkinson's termination on Saturday. Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, thanked Atkinson for his two years of service and stressed the importance of having an impartial watchdog for the intelligence community.
"Like any political appointee, the Inspector General serves at the behest of the Executive," Burr wrote. "However, in order to be effective, the IG must be allowed to conduct his or her work independent of internal or external pressure. It is my hope the next nominee for the role of ICIG will uphold the same important standards laid out by Congress when we created this role."
Burr also drew attention to Atkinson's success in transforming the inspector general's office, which was in disarray when he took over. "Over the last two years, he turned the Office of the ICIG around, restoring an important organization," Burr said. "I've appreciated his professionalism and responsiveness when working with the Senate Intelligence Committee on a wide range of issues and I wish him the best."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has a history of advocating for whistleblowers, issued a statement saying that Trump's explanation for why he fired Atkinson was insufficient.
“Inspectors general play a critical role in protecting against fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct, and their work helps ensure the government efficiently serves the people," Grassley wrote. "And they often serve as an outlet to whistleblowers who shine a light to problems in government. They help drain the swamp, so any removal demands an explanation. Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence. More details are needed from the administration."
This story has been updated with statements from Sens. Richard Burr and Chuck Grassley.
This story has been updated with comments from President Donald Trump.