IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump fires Michael Atkinson, sending a clear message to inspectors general about oversight

Trump doesn’t acknowledge that checks and balances exist. And as long as Republicans in Congress stand by him, he will continue to do whatever he wants.
Image: Inspector General Michael Atkinson arrives for a closed-door hearing in Washington on Oct. 4, 2019.
Inspector General Michael Atkinson arrives for a closed-door hearing in Washington on Oct. 4, 2019.Eric Baradat / AFP via Getty Images file

In 2008, incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said, “you never want a crisis go to waste.” Evidently, President Donald Trump agrees. While the rest of us are just trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic, the president is continuing his relentless assault on oversight.

On Friday night, Trump unleashed a two-part attack. First, he announced his intention to nominate White House lawyer Brian Miller to serve as the inspector general (IG) overseeing the Treasury Department’s implementation of the $2 trillion coronavirus bailout fund. You might remember Miller from the impeachment saga, where he helped the White House navigate document requests from Congress.

While the rest of us are just trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic, the president is continuing his relentless assault on oversight.

Next, Trump informed Congress of his intention to remove the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. Atkinson rose to public prominence for initially flagging the Ukraine whistleblower complaint and designating it as an “urgent concern.” This was the beginning of a chain of events that culminated with Trump’s impeachment by the House (and acquittal in the Senate).

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get updates on the week's most important political analysis

Atkinson’s dismissal has been brewing since late last year. With the writing on the wall, Atkinson made a last stand in a private letter sent to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on March 18. In the letter, Atkinson wrote, “the past six months have been a searing time for whistleblowers and for those who work to protect them from reprisal or threat of reprisal for reporting alleged wrongdoing.”

Unsurprisingly, Trump defended his decision to fire Atkinson on Saturday, using the kind of rhetoric he deployed continually during the Mueller probe and impeachment trial. The only thing was missing was his favorite adjective: “hoax!” “I thought he did a terrible job, absolutely terrible,” Trump said at a Saturday press briefing at the White House. “He took a fake report and brought it to Congress… not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.”

Trump went on to call the IG a “disgrace.”

What Atkinson actually did was his job, which he was tasked with performing independent of the White House. Trump, of course, doesn’t want people to act independently of his own agenda. And he knows he won’t have that problem with his trusted lawyer, Brian Miller. With Miller at the helm, Trump knows he will likely have far more leeway when it comes to spending the trillions allocated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Moments after he signed bailout bill into law, Trump released a statement declaring his intention to effectively ignore the bill’s oversight provisions due to what he characterized as “constitutional concerns.” Perhaps most consequential was Trump’s edict to ignore language in the bill that requires the president to consult with Congress before certain funds are spent or reallocated.

The purpose of these provisions was to ensure that money was being spent as intended by Congress. Without those safeguards in place and without an independent inspector general overseeing it, this could become a $2 trillion slush fund. Trump can funnel some of this money to his own properties. He can prioritize bailouts for supporters and major donors. He can extract promises of financial and political support in exchange for expedited approval of loans. In other words, he can continue to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself. And it will be very hard for Congress, let alone taxpayers, to know.

But maybe we’re being too hard on the president. Shouldn’t we be able to take him at his word? Not if history is our guide. Keep in mind that Trump has still refused to produce his tax returns, even though he promised he would during the 2016 campaign. Since taking office, his company has charged the Secret Service hundreds of thousands of dollars for rooms at his clubs. Trump’s frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago have cost taxpayers more than $133 million. A single visit to his Scotland resort in July 2018 cost taxpayers $950,000 from Secret Service costs. To date, Trump’s trips have cost taxpayers more than what President Barack Obama spent during his eight years in office. If anyone questions whether Trump can leverage this $2 trillion to benefit his own businesses, we already know the answer.

We also know Trump is a transactional creature. He has not hesitated to use his office as a mechanism to enrich himself and extract revenge against his perceived enemies. He has repeatedly refused to acknowledge and adhere to Congress’ role as a check on his power. Trump’s actions on Friday night reinforce this reality.

Let’s be clear here, the message Trump is sending to inspectors general across his administration is painfully apparent: if you step out of line, you’ll lose your job. That prospect isn’t sitting well with the IG community. Michael Horowitz, the chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency and the IG overseeing the Justice Department released a statement on Saturday declaring, “The Inspector General Community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee.” It wasn’t that long ago that such an overt act of political retaliation would draw the ire of congressional Republicans. When Obama was president, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, believed that, “any entity that receives billions of tax dollars” needs” independent oversight.” As the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, my former boss Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said, “Inspectors General can’t be effective if they believe looking for waste and abuse could cost them their job.”

Trump doesn’t believe in oversight. He doesn’t acknowledge that checks and balances exist. And it doesn’t matter what the letter of the law says. As long as Republicans in Congress stand by him, he will continue to do whatever he wants. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins justified her vote to acquit Trump of impeachment by saying, “I believe that the president has learned from this case,” adding that “I’ve made very clear that I don’t think anyone should be retaliated against.” Now Trump has called your bluff, senator. What are you prepared to do about it?