WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump notified Congress late Friday that he has fired the intelligence committee watchdog who handled a whistleblower’s complaint involving Trump’s pressure campaign against the Ukranian president that triggered his impeachment.
Trump informed the Senate Intelligence Committee of his decision to fire Michael Atkinson.
“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 Intelligence Committee’s vice chairman.
“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.”
Atkinson informed 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.
The Senate acquitted Trump in February.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., House Intelligence Committee chairman who led the impeachment inquiry, called Trump’s action “another blatant attempt by the president to gut the independence of the Intelligence Community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing.”
“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.”
Trump’s move comes as the nation is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe and is now exacting a deadly toll in the United States, where nearly 280,000 people have been infected and more than 7,000 have died.
“This retribution against a distinguished public servant for doing his job and informing Congress of an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint is a direct affront to the entire inspector general system,” Schiff said.
Atkinson reviewed the whistleblower’s complaint that alleged Trump “used the power of his office” to solicit foreign help for the 2020 election, determining in late August that the complaint appeared credible.
The then-acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, prevented him from passing along the complaint to Congress within seven days, as is typically required for national-security whistleblower complaints after consulting with the White House and Justice Department.
Maguire said he thought the complaint might be protected by executive privilege, despite being a conversation with a foreign leader. The Justice Department ruled that the complaint didn’t qualify as an “urgent concern” about “a serious or flagrant problem” requiring notification of Congress because the target – Trump – isn’t a member of the intelligence community.
Atkinson, however, disagreed with that decision, saying in a Sept. 17 letter that the allegations related to “one of the most significant and important” of Maguire’s responsibilities to the American people. Atkinson warned lawmakers that withholding the information could lead to “a significant problem and deficiency” relating to the nation’s intelligence programs.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Atkinson a “man of integrity.”
“Being fired for having the courage to speak truth to power makes him a patriot,” Schumer said.
Contributing: Bart Jansen, Nicholas Wu and The Associated Press