WASHINGTON — President Trump is firing the intelligence community inspector general whose insistence on telling lawmakers about a whistle-blower complaint about his dealings with Ukraine triggered impeachment proceedings last fall, the president told lawmakers in a letter late on Friday.
Mr. Trump is ousting the inspector general, Michael K. Atkinson, because he lost confidence in him, the president wrote in a letter to leaders of the two congressional intelligence committees. He gave no further explanation, but a late-night dismissal coming as the world’s attention is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic raised the specter of reprisal.
“As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as president, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general,” Mr. Trump wrote. “That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.”
Mr. Trump has been talking to aides about his desire to oust Mr. Atkinson since last fall, tarring the inspector general as disloyal because he sought to share information with Congress about the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into delivering him personal political benefits.
In February, after the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted Mr. Trump of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress, the president ousted other administration officials who cooperated in the impeachment inquiry by providing testimony, including Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a National Security Council aide.
The White House marched Colonel Vindman out with security guards, along with his brother Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, an Army officer who also worked on the National Security Council staff but had played no role in the impeachment inquiry.
Under the law that created the position of the inspector general for the intelligence community, the president can only remove that person a month after notifying the intelligence communities of his intentions and rationale.
“The inspector general may be removed from office only by the president,” the law states. “The president shall communicate in writing to the congressional intelligence committees the reasons for the removal not later than 30 days prior to the effective date of such removal.”
But rather than being permitted to serve for another month, the White House has told Mr. Atkinson that he is being placed on immediate administrative leave, according to a person familiar with the matter.
On Aug. 12, Mr. Atkinson received a whistle-blower complaint from an intelligence community official alleging that Mr. Trump was abusing his powers over foreign policy to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations that could deliver him personal political benefits, including by withholding a White House meeting and military aid that Congress had appropriated to Kyiv.
Under a federal whistle-blower law, if the intelligence community inspector general determines that such a complaint presents an “urgent concern,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “shall” disclose it to Congress. In an Aug. 26 letter to the then-acting director, Joseph Maguire, Mr. Atkinson declared that the complaint “appears credible” and met that standard.
The Trump administration nevertheless refused to send the information to lawmakers. But it later reversed course under political pressure. The initial attempt to cover up what Mr. Atkinson was trying to tell lawmakers drastically heightened attention toward Mr. Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine, touching off the impeachment proceedings.
Mr. Trump told lawmakers in his letter on Friday that he will later submit a nominee to replace Mr. Atkinson who “has my full confidence and who meets the appropriate qualifications.”
Andrew P. Bakaj, a lawyer who represented the whistle-blower, quickly labeled the dismissal as “Retaliation” on Twitter.
In a message, Mr. Bakaj wrote, “He was an honorable inspector general who executed his duties with honor and integrity, and in doing so maintained his independence and neutrality.”