Note: this article, featuring our Deputy Director of Legislation Irvin McCullough, was originally published here.
Trump to Fire Intelligence Community Inspector General
Firing of Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who reviewed Ukraine whistleblower complaint, is latest in series of intelligence-community removals.
WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump late Friday said he intends to remove the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community, who last year called a whistleblower’s complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine credible and pushed to share it with Congress.
Mr. Trump’s decision to fire Michael Atkinson is the latest in a string of dismissals or firings of more than a half-dozen top U.S. intelligence officials, particularly at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Several of the actions have come since Mr. Trump was impeached last year by the House of Representatives and acquitted earlier this year in his impeachment trial in the Senate.
“As is the case with regard to other positions…it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general,” the president said in a letter to Congress. “That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.”
Mr. Atkinson, who was appointed to his post by Mr. Trump in 2018, became a key figure in the impeachment inquiry last year when he shepherded a whistleblower complaint from a Central Intelligence Agency officer about the president’s July call with his Ukrainian counterpart.
During that call, Mr. Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely Democratic foe in the election this fall, and his son for dealings in Ukraine.
Democrats and whistleblower advocates quickly condemned Mr. Atkinson’s removal.
“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,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred questions to the White House.
Under law, Mr. Trump is allowed to remove the inspector general of the intelligence community 30 days after notifying the congressional intelligence committees of his intention and justification for doing so. The president told lawmakers he intended to nominate a replacement soon “who has my full confidence.”
A congressional official said that Mr. Atkinson was informed only on Friday night that Mr. Trump has decided to fire him. He has been placed on administrative leave, the official said, effectively sidelining Mr. Atkinson until the statutory period for his removal expires.
A U.S. official said that Mr. Atkinson’s acting replacement will be Thomas Monheim, who currently serves as general counsel to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a U.S. intelligence agency whose tasks include analyzing data from spy satellites.
Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst at the Government Accountability Project, said that Mr. Atkinson’s removal was “a body blow to executive oversight.”
“I can’t see how this wouldn’t chill civil servants across the federal workforce from speaking truth to power,” Mr. McCullough said.
Since last summer, Mr. Trump and his aides have removed the top tier of leadership at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was created by a 2004 law to coordinate U.S. intelligence work and assure that gaps like those that occurred before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks didn’t recur.
Last July, Mr. Trump ousted DNI Director Dan Coats and declined to appoint his deputy, Sue Gordon, as his acting replacement, prompting her to retire. In February, the president fired Mr. Coats’s acting replacement, retired Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire, after the president became angered at learning details of how one of Mr. Maguire’s aides had briefed Congress on Russia’s expected attempts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election.
Mr. Trump named Richard Grenell, a political ally, to replace Adm. Maguire on an acting basis. Mr. Grenell immediately ousted Andrew Hallman, who had been a senior Maguire aide.
Last month, Mr. Grenell ousted Russell Travers, a veteran intelligence officer who led the National Counterterrorism Center, and his deputy, Pete Hall.
The decision to fire Mr. Atkinson “is 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,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who led the impeachment inquiry, said in a statement.
Mr. Schiff added: “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.”
Mr. Atkinson’s office received the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump last August and determined that it was both urgent and credible, and, as required by law, must be sent to Congress.
But an unusual legal standoff developed when he was effectively overruled by Mr. Maguire, who at the time recently had been installed as acting director of national intelligence. Mr. Maguire sought advice from the Justice Department, which concluded the complaint didn’t meet the statutory definition for an “urgent concern” and therefore didn’t require transmission to lawmakers.
The impasse eventually was resolved when the White House decided to release a transcript of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky and to disclose the whistleblower complaint a day later. Those two documents quickly triggered an impeachment inquiry by the House.