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Why Trump Fired an Inspector General—and Why It Matters

The IG who told Congress about the Ukraine whistleblower last year has been booted from office.
April 6, 2020
Why Trump Fired an Inspector General—and Why It Matters
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, leaves a meeting in the U.S. Capitol October 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. Atkinson met with the House Select Committee on Intelligence today in the ongoing impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As hundreds of Americans lie dying and thousands more grieve their dead, President Trump remains busy acting on his grudges and consolidating power for its own sake, while thumbing his nose at the rule of law. Last week, he fired Michael K. Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general. It was Atkinson who last year forwarded the whistleblower complaint to Congress, the act that ignited Trump’s impeachment. Even Senator Susan Collins—the Maine Republican who famously told CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell that Trump “has learned from this [impeachment] case” and “will be much more cautious in the future”—criticized the firing. “While I recognize that the president has the authority to appoint and remove Inspectors General,” Collins said, “I believe Inspector General Atkinson served the Intelligence Community and the American people well, and his removal was not warranted.”

Too little, too late, Senator Collins. Despite impassioned warnings that Trump would continue to abuse his office, you and your Senate Republican colleagues knowingly refused to protect the public and the Constitution. Innocent people are now paying the ultimate price for your failure.

The Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community was established by the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act to operate as “an objective and effective office, appropriately accountable to Congress, to initiate and conduct independent investigations” of activities within the responsibility of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Although the inspector general (IG) for intelligence reports directly to the DNI, he appoints his own assistants, has “direct access” to all federal records and employees needed for the performance of his duties—as well as subpoena power—and can appoint his own legal counsel.

The DNI itself was created in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks to oversee the intelligence-related work of a dozen-plus civilian and military agencies charged with collecting and processing data regarding threats to the United States—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Security Agency, as well as the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and the Department of Defense. The DNI advises the president, department heads, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, senior military commanders, and Congress.

Within the office of the DNI, the IG’s job is to investigate activity “constituting a violation of laws, rules, or regulations, or mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to the public health and safety,” while keeping the DNI and Congress informed of problems within the intelligence community as well as “the necessity for, and the progress of, corrective actions.”

Although the president appoints the IG for intelligence with the advice and consent of the Senate, the statute mandates that the nomination “shall be made . . . without regard to political affiliation” and “on the basis of integrity . . . and prior experience.” The intelligence IG’s website likewise touts that the office functions “with integrity, professionalism, and independence,” acts “free of external influence,” and “provide[s] objective assessments, findings, and conclusions, regardless of political and personal consequence.”

Michael Atkinson unequivocally fit that bill. DOJ’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, publicly remarked that Atkinson “is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight.” Indeed, we can safely assume that Trump fired Atkinson precisely because he executed his job dutifully and well.

Although the president can remove the IG for intelligence, the statute requires that he first “communicate in writing to the congressional intelligence committees the reasons for the removal not later than 30 days prior to the effective date of such removal.” In Trump’s notice to Congress, he justified Atkinson’s removal this way: “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.” Although the firing is technically effective 30 days from last Friday, Atkinson was placed on immediate administrative leave, thwarting the statute’s intent.

Trump’s letter provides no material reason for Atkinson’s firing, but during the daily COVID-19 White House briefing on Saturday, the president made clear his motivation:

[Atkinson] 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 Congress.  . . . Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you. . . . He took this terrible, inaccurate whistleblower report, and he brought it to Congress.

Recall that Atkinson deemed of “urgent concern” the whistleblower complaint regarding Trump’s quid pro quo with Ukraine. That determination required him by law to provide the complaint to congressional intelligence committees. Upon consultation with the Department of Justice, then-acting DNI Joseph Maguire preempted Atkinson, but Congress learned of the episode anyway. No doubt, Trump’s version of “confidence” in an IG for intelligence is having confidence that the person in that vitally important position will hide and malinger as needed in order to cover Trump’s back, or face swift critique and retribution.

In praising Atkinson, Horowitz vowed that “aggressive, independent oversight” of the Trump administration will persist without him. Yet the entire slate of IGs—73 across the federal government at last count—is at the mercy of Trump’s wrath, including Horowitz himself. Without consequences, the White House remains undeterred in its continued shattering of norms and laws designed to keep the public safe and hold government officials accountable.

And it’s not just IGs who have reason to worry: Potential whistleblowers might be deterred from speaking up about abuses they witness. Atkinson alludes to the possibility of such a chilling effect in a statement he released upon his firing. “I have faith” that other IGs “will continue to do everything in their power to protect the rights of whistleblowers,” he wrote. “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”

The possibility of a chilling effect on whistleblowers is especially worrying now, as tens of thousands of deaths are expected as a result in part of the Trump administration’s incompetence and lies about COVID-19, and as the administration oversees a massive program of financial and economic relief. Government employees who witness wrongdoing may be intimidated by the firing of Atkinson and the president’s record of hostility toward whistleblowers and intimidated into biting their tongues. At the very moment we should be encouraging a culture of watchful candor and public accountability, Trump’s move risks sending potential whistleblowers into a silent crouch.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.