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Fired Intel IG Speaks Out Against Trump as Watchdog Warns of a Democracy In 'Gravest Danger'

"The president's attempts to rid the government of those who would provide appropriate oversight and accountability for abuses... sets us on a dangerous trajectory."

Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, leaves a meeting in the U.S. Capitol October 4, 2019.

Michael Atkinson, Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, leaves a meeting in the U.S. Capitol October 4, 2019. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Michael Atkinson, the Intelligence Community inspector general fired by President Donald Trump on Friday, claimed in a statement Sunday that he had been let go for prioritizing doing his job over the interests of the president's political goals, raising questions about how the White House continues to treat the levers of government as a means to an end in the sole interest of Trump.

"It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General, and from my commitment to continue to do so," Atkinson said. 

"Those of us who vowed to protect a whistleblower's right to safely be heard must, to the end, do what we promised to do, no matter how difficult and no matter the personal consequences," he added.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times Monday, Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, warned that the president's firing of Atkinson was part of an "attack on democracy."

Trump's behavior, Bookbinder wrote, is in the context of a disturbing pattern across the world of autocratic leaders using the coronavirus as a pretext to seize power and tamp down on democratic rights—notably in Hungary where, as Common Dreams reported, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been given dictatorial powers to amidst the crisis.

"Times of crisis are when democracies are in the gravest danger of crumbling," wrote Bookbinder. "We are seeing that play out in the world right now."

"We're not there yet," continued Bookbinder. "But the president's attempts to rid the government of those who would provide appropriate oversight and accountability for abuses and speak truth to power, to put in place loyalists who will look out for him rather than providing independent checks, and to empower relatives and disregard laws sets us on a dangerous trajectory."

A career public servant, Atkinson was fired Friday by Trump because, the president said in a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee chair and ranking member Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), he had lost confidence in Atkinson to assist in the promotion of "the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of federal programs and activities." 

Subsequent details of the firing and the president's own statements made clear the firing was due to the inspector general's role in delivering a whistleblower report to Congress on Trump's pressuring of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden in exchange for the release of military aid—a series of events that  triggered the president's eventual impeachment.

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According to Politico:

Atkinson was the federal official who revealed to Congress in September the existence of a whistleblower complaint against Trump, which indicated that the president improperly pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. When Atkinson sought to share that complaint with Congress under a federal whistleblower law, the White House and Justice Department intervened and blocked the transmission of the complaint for days.

Coming in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak that has crippled the U.S. and dominated the attention of Americans nationwide, the Friday night "news dump" of Atkinson's firing was seen as an effort by the administration to avoid attention.

Reporters asked Trump about the firing during the president's Sunday news conference on the pandemic. Trump made clear the firing was because of Atkinson's involvement in the whistleblower complaint and claimed the inspector general had been unfair.

"I thought he did a terrible job," said Trump. "Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report, and he brought it to Congress—with an emergency."

"Not a big Trump fan," the president added, "that I can tell you."

Atkinson, for his part, said in his statement that he had discharged his duties correctly and that the president's attempts to use the intelligence community for his personal gain were inappropriate.

"As an Inspector General, I was legally obligated to ensure that whistleblowers had an effective and authorized means to disclose urgent matters involving classified information to the congressional intelligence committees, and that when they did blow the whistle in an authorized manner, their identities would be protected as a guard against reprisals," Atkinson said. 

In a piece for the Daily Beast on Atkinson's firing, Samantha Vinograd wrote that Trump's insecurity and sensitivity to perceived slights was putting the country in a dangerous position.

"While Atkinson's firing comes as no surprise in light of the president's habitual misuse and abuse of the intelligence community, coupled with his disdain for oversight more broadly, it will have costs for U.S. national security today, tomorrow, and further down the road," wrote Vinograd.

Boookbinder, in his Times piece, argued that "we can't afford to ignore the anti-democratic steps the president is taking while the American people are appropriately preoccupied with this outbreak."

"If we don’t respond to these outrageous abuses now," wrote Bookbinder, "the damage may be done by the time anyone is the wiser."

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