There is an interesting fight brewing on the Hill after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate Attorney General Bill Barr over his comments on the firing of the intelligence community watchdog, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. What is curious is that Barr justified the firing on the very basis that I previously raised in a blog column, While I was highly critical of the move, I noted that termination would have been justified if Atkinson continued to assert that he would not follow Justice Department interpretations of federal law. However, President Donald Trump made clear that he fired Atkinson for the worst possible reason: the merits of the Ukrainian allegations reported to Congress. So Schiff and Nadler are calling for an investigation into Barr over his arguing what would be legitimate grounds for a termination? It is not clear to me what the IG is supposed to do with such a request. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., have also requested a review of Barr’s comments. (For full disclosure, I testified in favor of Barr’s confirmation before the Senate Judiciary Committee).
I previously wrote that:
“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 still would not have fired Atkinson so long as he committed to following Justice Department interpretations in the future. I also criticized other terminations following the impeachment, though they were clearly within Trump’s authority.
Barr essentially made the same argument when asked why Atkinson warranted termination for ignoring the interpretation of the Department: “from the vantage point of the Department of Justice, [Atkinson] had interpreted his statute, which is a fairly narrow statute, that gave him jurisdiction over wrongdoing by intelligence people and tried to turn it into a commission to explore anything in the government and immediately reported to Congress without letting the Executive Branch look at it and determine whether there was any problem.”
For that reason, Barr thought that the termination was “the right thing” to do.
Yet, Schiff and Nadler have called upon Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz and acting director of the Office of Professional Responsibility Jeffrey Ragsdale, to investigate Barr for “blatantly mischaracteriz[ing]” the basis for Atkinson’s firing. They claim that “Mr. Barr’s misleading remarks appear to have been aimed at justifying the President’s retaliatory decision to fire Mr. Atkinson.” That is the basis for an Inspector General’s investigation? Why would an Attorney General opining on the legal basis for a termination be a violation of federal law or policy?
Barr is right that Atkinson’s termination would be justified on such a basis. He does not claim that this was the only or primary reason for Trump’s decision. Yet, Feinstein and Warner believe that the IG should investigate an Attorney General if he is viewed as “misstating” facts behind a president’s motivation in firing an official. Such a standard would allow the IG’s office to regulate all public comments by a president or cabinet member for their accuracy or veracity like a type of fact checking operation.
The call for this investigation undermines the credibility of the otherwise serious work to be done by the Committee. It shows a type of perpetual motion machine of investigations built by the Democrats. I fail to see why this is a wise political strategy. It is designed to get a brief media hit but also dilutes the impact of real matters that warrant investigation.