President Trump has discussed dismissing the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, because Atkinson reported a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine to Congress after concluding it was credible, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
Trump first expressed his dismay about Atkinson around the time the whistleblower’s complaint became public in September. In recent weeks, he has continued to raise with aides the possibility of firing him, one of the people said.
The president has said he does not understand why Atkinson shared the complaint, which outlined how Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Trump’s political rivals at the same time he was withholding military aid from the country. He has said he believes Atkinson, whom he appointed in 2017, has been disloyal, one of the people said.
Trump’s private complaints about Atkinson have come as he has publicly questioned his integrity and accused him of working with the Democrats to sabotage his presidency.
It is unclear how far Trump’s discussions about removing Atkinson have progressed. Two people familiar with what took place said they thought that Trump was just venting, and insisted that Atkinson’s dismissal was never under serious consideration.
But the mixture of public attacks and private discussions about a possible dismissal is a familiar way Trump has undermined investigators who have examined his conduct or that of people close to him. The president publicly criticized James Comey, the former FBI director, and Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, before he dismissed them for perceived disloyalty.
Trump believes he has the power to fire anyone in the executive branch, though aides say they have learned to ignore many of his private rants, unless the president brings up the subject repeatedly and appears on the precipice of making a move they feel could be damaging.
Spokesmen for the White House and inspector general’s office declined to comment.
Inspectors general are supposed to be insulated from politics so they can follow the facts and provide oversight of the executive branch. While presidents have the authority to remove them, they are supposed to take that action only in cases of misconduct or failure to fulfill duties.
In 2009, President Barack Obama fired the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps, for what White House officials said was incompetence. Republicans and even some Democrats questioned the move, while conservative pundits held up the inspector general as a victim of Obama’s politics.
People close to the president believe the political consequences of firing Atkinson could be devastating, especially when Trump needs all the Republican support he can get for a potential impeachment trial in the Senate.
Trump’s decision in May 2017 to fire Comey, who was leading an investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, set off a firestorm that led to the appointment of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller.
The following month, after it became public that Mueller was investigating Trump for obstructing justice, Trump told the White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn, to have Mueller removed. That incident later became a central episode in Mueller’s report, and House Democrats are still considering using that incident in an article of impeachment on obstruction of justice.
Atkinson’s handling of the anonymous whistleblower’s complaint was a major factor in the decision by House Democrats to initiate an impeachment inquiry. After conducting an investigation that led him to believe the complaint was credible, he forwarded it to the government’s top intelligence official, Joseph Maguire, who did not provide it to Congress in the time frame required under the law, but did allow Atkinson to alert lawmakers about the existence of the complaint.
In early September, Atkinson told Congress that Maguire had refused to hand over the document. Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, Maguire then gave the document to Congress.
Maguire later acknowledged that he and his top lawyer had checked with the White House and Justice Department about whether he was permitted to turn the document over to Congress, saying that he was concerned that such an action could infringe on executive privilege issues.
Lawyers for Maguire and the Justice Department said that because Trump was not a member of the intelligence community, Atkinson did not have the jurisdiction to deliver the report.
Trump said in recent days that he believes Atkinson should be forced to testify at impeachment hearings the Democrats are scheduled to begin this week.
“I recommend that Nervous Nancy Pelosi (who backed up Schiff’s lie), Shifty Adam Schiff, Sleepy Joe Biden, the Whistleblower (who miraculously disappeared after I released the transcript of the call), the 2nd Whistleblower (who also disappeared), & the I.G., be part of the list!” Trump tweeted Saturday, using the acronym for inspector general.
Trump’s public attacks on Atkinson have been part of his larger attempts to delegitimize the whistleblower and the process that led to the disclosure of the complaint.
In these efforts, Trump has tried to present himself as an advocate for whistleblowers, falsely claiming that he had been behind legislation to protect them.
“To think I signed the Whistleblower Protection Act!” Trump tweeted Monday, misstating what he had signed.