President Donald Trump has abruptly fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, sidelining an independent watchdog who played a pivotal role in his impeachment even as his White House struggled with the deepening coronavirus pandemic.
Trump informed the Senate intelligence committee late Friday of his decision to fire Michael Atkinson, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Atkinson handled the whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment last year.
Atkinson’s firing, which is part of a shake-up of the intelligence community under Trump, thrusts the president’s impeachment back into the spotlight as his administration deals with the deadly spread of coronavirus.
As Trump was removing Atkinson, the number of US deaths due to the virus topped 7000.
Trump said in the letter that it is “vital” that he has confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general, and “that is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general”.
He did not elaborate, except to say that “it is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs and activities,” and that inspectors general are critical to those goals.
Atkinson was the first to inform Congress about an anonymous whistleblower complaint last year that described Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son.
That complaint prompted a House investigation that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment.
In letters to lawmakers in August and September, Atkinson said he believed the complaint was “urgent” and “credible”. But the acting Director of National Intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire, said he did not believe it met the definition of “urgent”, and tried to withhold the complaint from Congress.
.@realDonaldTrump fires Michael Atkinson the watchdog Inspector General who forwarded the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress as was required under the law. Another Friday night massacre of an independent intelligence official
— Andrea Mitchell (@mitchellreports) April 4, 2020
The complaint was eventually released after a firestorm, and it revealed that Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July call to investigate Democrats.
The House launched an inquiry in September, and three months later voted to impeach Trump. The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump in February.
Democrats reacted swiftly to Atkinson’s removal. The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, saying it was “unconscionable” that Trump would fire Atkinson in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation’s intelligence agencies,” Warner said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat who led the House impeachment inquiry, said “the President’s dead of night decision puts our country and national security at even greater risk.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the firing “threatens to have a chilling effect against all willing to speak truth to power.” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, said Trump “fires people for telling the truth”.