President Donald Trump has fired the CIA Inspector General who was responsible for informing Congress of the whistleblower complaint on the Ukraine scandal. Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson will leave his job in 30 days and, in the interim, will be on interim leave. No successor has been named. I previously stated that I believe Atkinson was wrong in his interpretation of the law (as later found by the Justice Department). However, I believe that this is a mistake and undermines the system of whistleblower protections as well as the Inspector General system. Without a specific basis for the action, it appears retaliatory and it is certainly unnecessary. As noted below, there could be a legitimate concern over the interpretation of this law in the future if Atkinson was defying the Justice Department’s conclusions. Yet, that was not cited as the basis for the termination.
I have long resented how administrations often wait until Friday night to bury stories that they do not want to be covered. That was the case with Atkinson’s firing. On Friday night, President Trump informed Congress: “As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as President, have the power of appointment … 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.”
When Trump removed figures like Alexander Vindman after the impeachment, I thought it was gratuitous and unnecessary (he was leaving within the month). However, I could understand working with Vindman would be difficult. This is different.
Atkinson was wrong in his interpretation of the complaint failing within the statutory scheme for reporting to Congress. While the inspector general concluded that this allegation fell within the whistleblower law, the Justice Department has a good faith basis to reject his interpretation. That law is intended to address mismanagement, waste, abuse or a danger to public safety by intelligence officials. The president is the ultimate intelligence authority, and there is little support to argue that a discussion between world leaders should be viewed as a subject of this law. After all, any intelligence official could claim that a president undermined national interests in discussions with another world leader. Trump has been denounced, perhaps correctly, for disclosing classified information to foreign figures, but he has total authority to declassify information for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.
I believe that Atkinson should have yielded to the legal judgment of the Justice Department on the interpretation of this law. I further believe that Trump had a legitimate complaint about the use of the law to cover such high-level communications. Yet, this was obviously a matter of good-faith disagreement. I understood the bind that Atkinson felt in deciding whether to report the complaint to Congress. He decided to err on the side of transparency, which is generally a good predisposition for any government official. Moreover, whatever mistake was made on the legal interpretation, it does not warrant this action. Atkinson did what he honestly thought was right for the country and I have seen nothing to suggest a political or vindictive motive.
Moreover, Atkinson’s firing undermines the independence of the Inspector General’s office and its key function in our system. It is also damaging to President Trump. Rather than take the high road and move his Administration beyond the scandal, Trump will appear as vindictive and retaliatory. To take the action in the middle of a pandemic also makes the President look petty and distracted.
What concerns me the most is that there was no reason given for firing Atkinson other than a “loss of confidence.” No one questions the right of a president to fire high-ranking officials on that basis, but it seems to reaffirm that this is being done in retaliation for his decision that he had to inform Congress of the complaint. The position of the White House would be stronger if the Inspector General was asserting that he would continue to report such complaints to Congress on calls with heads of State. Such a position would defy the legal interpretation of the Justice Department, which historically is given deference on the meaning of federal law. There was no indication that Atkinson had indicated that he would defy that interpretation. If he did, the Administration should make that position clear.
Atkinson was widely respected and was appointed by Trump to this position after a distinguished governmental career.
Tom Monheim, a career intelligence professional, will be named acting inspector general for the intelligence community. It is vital that President Trump fill this position as soon as possible.