Donald Trump has fired the US inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, the man who first handled the complaint made by an anonymous CIA whistleblower that became the basis for his impeachment.
The president wrote to the House and Senate intelligence committees late on Friday informing them of his decision, saying it was “vital” he had confidence in the independent government watchdog and and “that is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general”.
“It is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs and activities,” he wrote, saying that inspectors general are critical to achieving those goals.
The timing of the decision looked unavoidably like opportunism to the president’s critics, coming as the US hit 7,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, with some 250,000 cases diagnosed and concerns ongoing about the supply of urgently-needed medical equipment and testing kits for frontline healthcare workers battling the virus.
Opposition Democrats were quick to condemn the dismissal.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi said the firing “threatens to have a chilling effect against all willing to speak truth to power”, while Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer concluded Mr Trump “fires people for telling the truth”.
“The president’s dead of night decision puts our country and national security at even greater risk,” added California congressman Adam Schiff, who led the House impeachment inquiry.
Mark Warner, the Virginia senator and ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the move “unconscionable” and commented: “We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicise the nation’s intelligence agencies.”
As inspector general, Mr Atkinson was the first person to inform Capitol Hill about the concerns raised over President Trump’s 25 July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the occupant of the Oval Office appeared to suggest that $391m (£302m) in congressionally-approved military aid to the country would be withheld unless it launched an anti-corruption investigation into former US vice president Joe Biden, Mr Trump’s probable election challenger.
The president cited a long-debunked conspiracy theory involving Mr Biden and his son Hunter Biden, formerly an executive on the board of a local energy company, as the reason for his “concern”, a narrative picked up by Fox News and promoted by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Mr Atkinson assessed the contents of the “quid pro quo” complaint and deemed its concerns to be “urgent” and “credible”, only for the then-acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to refute his conclusions and try to suppress the matter.
That ruling caused an outcry, prompting Speaker Pelosi to announce an investigation in September, setting in motion a train of events that would ultimately see mountains of evidence amassed, hundreds of hours of testimony given in private and in public and the House of Representatives voting to impeach President Trump on two counts – obstruction of Congress and abuse of power – in December.
The Republican-dominated Senate ultimately voted to acquit the president in February, with Utah’s Mitt Romney the only GOP senator to break ranks and snub the party line.
Mr Atkinson now joins the likes of administration officials lieutenant colonel Alexander Vindman, ex-director for European affairs for the United States National Security Council, and Gordon Sondland, former ambassador to the European Union, in being unceremoniously shown the door in the wake of that verdict.
Lt Col Vindman and Mr Sondland – a former Trump donor – both appeared as witnesses before the House Democrats’ inquiry in November 2019 and gave damning accounts of his actions.
Mr Atkinson is at least the seventh intelligence official to be fired, ousted or sidelined since last summer, with the president’s distrust and hostility towards Washington’s information-gathering community glaringly apparent.
Both Mr Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell last week blamed the drawn-out impeachment process for the administration’s catastrophically slow initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, an excuse rubbished by Speaker Pelosi.
“We have a life-and-death situation in our country, and they should not try to hide behind an excuse for why they do not take action,” she said. “That’s an admission that perhaps the president and the majority leader cannot handle the job.”
The president originally dismissed the pandemic as a “hoax”, echoing right-wing media claims its threat was being overstated by his enemies to rattle Wall Street and undermine his re-election effort, but has subsequently had to revise his opinion as the severity of the situation on his doorstep and around the globe becomes ever-more apparent.