US President Donald Trump late on Friday fired the intelligence community’s inspector-general who helped kick-start his impeachment last year by telling lawmakers about a whistleblower complaint regarding the president’s dealings with Ukraine.
Mr Trump said in a letter to the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees that he was removing Michael Atkinson from his post, with the firing effective in 30 days.
The decision came as the White House is grappling with a coronavirus pandemic that has already killed thousands of Americans. Democrats immediately criticised the “dead of night decision” as the latest instance of retaliation by Mr Trump.
Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee chairman who led the Democrats’ impeachment efforts, called the move “yet another blatant attempt by the president to gut the independence of the intelligence community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing”.
He added: “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.”
Mr Atkinson, an appointee of Mr Trump, had helped sparked the investigation that led to the president’s impeachment after he notified Congress about a whistleblower complaint, the contents of which were not then publicly known.
The complaint alleged that Mr Trump had sought to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating Joe Biden, the likely Democratic candidate for president later this year.
The inspector-general had judged that the whistleblower’s complaint was both “urgent” and “credible”, two tests under the law that required the document to be handed over to Congress.
The then acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, had initially resisted producing the complaint, sparking Mr Atkinson’s disclosure. Mr Maguire has since been replaced.
Mr Atkinson had previously been a long-serving prosecutor at the Department of Justice before he took up the job as inspector-general for the intelligence community in 2018.
Democrats ultimately impeached the president over the alleged conduct, arguing it was an abuse of power. They also impeached Mr Trump on a charge of obstruction of justice. The Senate acquitted the president on both counts earlier this year.
In his letter on Friday night, Mr Trump did not give specific reasons for firing Mr Atkinson, but wrote: “[I]t 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.”
The president has removed other officials involved in his impeachment, including Alexander Vindman, a former National Security Council official who testified against Mr Trump, and Gordon Sondland, the former US ambassador to the EU, who also testified in the inquiry.
Mr Atkinson’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment late on Friday.