President Donald Trump chose Friday night in the middle of the coronavirus crisis to fire the intelligence community inspector general who first alerted Congress in September to the whistleblower complaint that ended up sparking the impeachment inquiry. It was Michael Atkinson who first told lawmakers that Trump demanded Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and he later testified in the House impeachment inquiry.
Trump informed Congress of the firing Friday night and said that while Atkinson will officially leave his job in 30 days he was put on administrative leave effective immediately. “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 in a letter to lawmakers. “That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.” Trump did not name a permanent successor and said he would do so “at a later date.”
Michael Horowitz, the chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, issued a statement defending Atkinson, saying he “is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight.”
Democrats also blasted the decision. “President Trump fires people for telling the truth,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said. Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee characterized the firing as “another blatant attempt to gut the independence of the Intelligence Community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing.” Some observers were quick to note that the timing of the decision raised more than a few eyebrows in Washington. “Leave it to Trump to use a global pandemic as cover for his retaliation against those who helped bring to light his wrongdoing,” wrote Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress. “Disgusting.”
The firing was part of a broader set of decisions on watchdogs that “raised the specter of a White House power play over the community of inspectors general, independent officials whose mission is to root out waste, fraud and abuse within the government,” notes the New York Times. The Trump administration also unveiled five new nominees for inspector general posts, including a Trump aide named to head of the new post of special inspector general for pandemic recovery.