President Donald Trump is firing the intelligence community inspector general whose insistence on telling lawmakers about a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine triggered impeachment proceedings last fall.
The move came as Trump announced his intent to name a White House aide as the independent watchdog for $500 billion in corporate pandemic aid and notified Congress of other nominees to inspector general positions, including one that would effectively oust the newly named chairman of a panel to oversee how the government spends $2 trillion in coronavirus relief.
The slew of late-night announcements, coming as the world’s attention is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, raised the specter of a White House power play over the inspectors general — independent officials whose mission is to root out government waste, fraud and abuse.
Trump is ousting the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, because he lost confidence in Atkinson, the president wrote in a letter to leaders of the two congressional intelligence committees. He gave no further explanation.
“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.”
Trump has long discussed his desire to fire several inspectors general, and he has been talking to aides about his desire to oust Atkinson since last fall, tarring the inspector general as disloyal because he sought to share information with Congress about his efforts to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden.
Atkinson’s fate was sealed after the impeachment trial ended, said one Trump administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Under the law that created the position of the inspector general for the intelligence community, the president can only remove that person a month after notifying the intelligence committees of his intentions and rationale.
But rather than being permitted to serve for another month, the White House told Atkinson that he was being placed on administrative leave, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. The move effectively circumvents the 30-day safeguard by sidelining him immediately.
The administration official described the move as part of a broader shake-up of the intelligence community that Trump has set in motion in the past several weeks. He recently installed Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany known for his combative conservatism, as acting director of national intelligence, a position where presidents typically look to install career officials or apolitical appointees. And Trump has nominated one of his top allies in Congress, GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, to the take over the post permanently.
The ouster of Atkinson came as the White House announced five nominees for inspector general positions. They included Brian D. Miller, an aide to Trump in the White House Counsel’s Office, who was tapped to be the newly created special inspector general for pandemic recovery.
Miller has served as an inspector general for the General Services Administration, but in more recent years he has performed a more political role. Among other things, he helped respond to oversight requests for White House documents during Trump’s impeachment trial. His nomination requires Senate confirmation.
Trump also nominated a senior Customs and Border Protection policy official, Jason Abend, to be the Department of Defense inspector general. That position is vacant and is held on an acting basis by Glenn Fine, the deputy inspector general at the Pentagon and a longtime Justice Department inspector general with a reputation for independence.
This past week, a group of fellow inspectors general named Fine chairman of the new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, with control of an $80 million budget to police how the government carries out the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
If Abend is confirmed, Fine would lose his acting role and could no longer lead the committee.
Trump also nominated three current and former Justice Department officials to be the new inspectors general at the CIA, the Department of Education and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The president has been focused for weeks on rooting out administration officials perceived as disloyal.
Before his role in bringing to light Trump’s actions toward Ukraine that led to his impeachment, Atkinson had been nominated to the position by Trump and confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
The two top Democrats on the intelligence oversight panels expressed vehement objections on Friday, portraying Trump’s move as retribution.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who was the lead impeachment manager, called the “dead of night” firing in the middle of a national emergency “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.”
And Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: “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.”
The two top Republicans on both committees, including Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate panel, did not immediately comment on the dismissal.
Trump told lawmakers in his letter Friday that he would later submit a nominee to replace Atkinson who “has my full confidence and who meets the appropriate qualifications.” An intelligence official said Thomas Monheim, general counsel of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, would serve as acting inspector general.
On Twitter, Andrew Bakaj, a lawyer who represented the whistleblower, quickly labeled the dismissal as “retaliation.”
But the high-pressure role of an inspector general carries the risk of aggravating presidents or senior officials in any administration. Atkinson’s predecessor, I. Charles McCullough, said he kept few personal items in his office because he feared he could be fired at any point. “The job is not for the faint of heart — it’s a job hazard for anyone in an IG position,” McCullough said.