Ousting Atkinson, Trump shifts focus back to his 'revenge list'

Late Friday night, Trump shifted his attention away from the pandemic long enough to oust the inspector general whom he holds in contempt.
Inspector General Michael Atkinson Appears Before House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence For Closed Door Briefing
Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community's inspector general, leaves a meeting at the Capitol on Oct. 4, 2019.Mark Wilson / Getty Images file

After Senate Republicans acquitted Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, the president's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said in a written statement, "[I]t's now time to get back to the business of the American people."

It didn't take long for his boss to make it painfully clear that he disagrees. In fact, Trump came up with a "revenge list" and placed great importance on retaliating against his perceived foes from the scandal. In early February, the Washington Post reported that Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, was among those the president was eager to punish.

It took two months, but late on Friday night -- a popular time for the White House to dump controversial news -- Trump shifted his attention away from the pandemic long enough to oust the inspector general whom he blames in part for his impeachment.

President Donald Trump has informed Congress that he is removing the inspector general who flagged the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, according to a letter obtained by NBC News.... The firing is to take effect 30 days from Friday, according to the letter.

In case anyone's forgotten, Trump first appointed Atkinson to the job in 2017 and he maintained a fairly low public profile -- right up until last fall, when the inspector general was confronted with a whistleblower complaint about the president trying to extort Ukraine into helping him cheat in the 2020 election.

Atkinson went by the book, deeming the complaint credible, and alerting Congress, as the law requires. Defending his actions, the ousted IG said in a statement yesterday that it was hard not to think Trump fired him because he "faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial" inspector general.

For his part, Trump didn't make much of an effort to hide his motivations, telling reporters over the weekend that Atkinson was "absolutely terrible" and "a disgrace" because he shared a "fake" report with lawmakers. The president added that the outgoing intelligence community IG took on the role of an anti-Trump activist.

In reality, Trump's bizarre version of reality notwithstanding, the whistleblower's report was both accurate and corroborated by additional evidence. As for Atkinson's politics, Trump was the one who chose him for the position in the first place, and there was nothing about the IG's actions that reflected a partisan agenda.

Nevertheless, with the Friday night firing, the president checked several boxes at once, simultaneously renewing his lengthy campaign against his perceived enemies who've done nothing wrong, extending his retaliatory efforts against intelligence community officials who've demonstrated a degree of independence, and proving that the coronavirus crisis is doing little to distract Trump from his political priorities.

Two months ago, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that the president had "learned" from his impeachment ordeal and that he "will be much more cautious in the future." The Maine Republican added at the time, "The president has been impeached. That's a pretty big lesson."

As Trump ousts an inspector general who did nothing wrong, the "lesson" Trump appears to have learned is that he can get away with abuses like these with impunity -- even if that means putting aside a pandemic response in order to retaliate against an innocent intelligence community official in the middle of the night.

Postscript: Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said in a statement over the weekend, "Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done 'by the book' and consistent with the law."

If the White House takes steps to retaliate against Horowitz, we'll know why.