WASHINGTON - Remember the impeachment? President Donald Trump does. Even in the middle of a pandemic, he made clear on Saturday that he remained fixated on purging the government of those he believes betrayed him during the inquiry that led to his Senate trial.
The president's under-cover-of-darkness decision late the night before to fire Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community's inspector general who insisted last year on forwarding a whistleblower complaint to Congress, swept away one more official deemed insufficiently loyal as part of a larger purge that has already rid the administration of many key figures in the impeachment drama.
Trump made no effort at a news briefing Saturday to pretend that the dismissal was anything other than retribution for Atkinson's action under a law requiring such complaints be disclosed to lawmakers. "I thought he did a terrible job, absolutely terrible," Trump said. "He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress." Capping a long, angry denunciation of the impeachment, he added, "The man is a disgrace to IGs. He's a total disgrace."
Trump's hunt for informers and turncoats proceeds even while most Americans are focused on the coronavirus outbreak that has killed thousands and shut down most of the country. The president's determination to wipe out perceived treachery underscores his intense distrust of the government that he oversees at a time when he is relying on career public health and emergency management officials to help guide him through one of the most dangerous periods in modern American history.
"It was a Friday Night Massacre, a purely vindictive decision with no apparent purpose other than punishing the inspector general for doing his job," said Chris Whipple, author of "The Spymasters," a coming history of CIA directors to be published in September. "What's next? Unmasking the whistleblower and hauling him into the dock? The signal here to the intelligence community is, do not dare tell the president what he doesn't want to hear."
At his briefing Saturday, Trump likewise endorsed the firing of Capt. Brett E. Crozier of the Navy, who was removed from command of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt after sending his superiors a letter pleading for help for his virus-stricken crew. "He shouldn't be talking that way in a letter," the president said. "I thought it was terrible what he did."
While appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, inspectors general are government watchdogs traditionally granted a great deal of independence so that they can ferret out waste, fraud and other misconduct in government agencies without fear of reprisal.
But Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little regard for the positions, which were created by Congress after Watergate to increase government accountability, and expects executive branch officials to serve his interests.
His administration has quarreled with various inspectors general and more than a dozen such positions are currently unfilled. When Trump signed the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, he issued a signing statement saying he will not allow a special inspector general created by the law to monitor spending to send reports to Congress without his supervision.
On Friday night, even as he fired Atkinson, Trump installed Brian D. Miller, a White House aide, as the special inspector general for the relief spending, raising questions about how beholden he will be to the president in scrutinizing the execution of the largest such stimulus program in history.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Miller's selection missed the point of what such an oversight official's mission should be. "To nominate a member of the president's own staff is exactly the wrong type of person to choose for this position," Schumer said Saturday.
Schumer's office released a letter that Atkinson sent the senator on March 18 in response to concerns about whistleblowers. "As you know, 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 wrongdoing," Atkinson wrote. Promised protections are meaningless if whistleblowers are "vilified, threatened, publicly ridiculed or - perhaps even worse - utterly abandoned by fair weather whistleblower champions."
Trump's dismissal of Atkinson was the latest instance of the president continuing to pursue his personal and policy agenda while the nation has been consumed by the pandemic. He rolled back car pollution rules and used the virus to justify tougher controls at the border with Mexico and a new rule undercutting federal unions.
Trump acted against the inspector general two months after the Senate voted almost entirely along party lines to acquit him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from his efforts to pressure Ukraine to incriminate Democrats while withholding desperately needed security aid. But even as he has been managing the pandemic response, impeachment remains on Trump's mind.
In a Fox News interview this past week, Trump blamed Speaker Nancy Pelosi for impeaching him rather than facing the looming coronavirus threat.
"All she did was focus on impeachment," he said. "She didn't focus on anything having to do with pandemics, she didn't focus on - she focused on impeachment and she lost. And she looked like a fool."
That is a theme other Republicans have picked up, arguing that the focus on ousting Trump over what they called bogus charges distracted the country. "It diverted the attention of the government, because everything every day was all about impeachment," Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Trump, however, denied that it distracted him. "Did it divert my attention?" he replied to a reporter. "I think I'm getting A-pluses for the way I handled myself during a phony impeachment. OK? It was a hoax."
"I don't think I would have done any better had I not been impeached. OK?" he added. "And I think that's a great tribute to something; maybe it's a tribute to me. But I don't think I would have acted any differently or I don't think I would have acted any faster." McConnell later told The Washington Post that he meant Congress was distracted, not the government.
The Senate trial ended Feb. 5, just days after Trump ordered the country closed to most travelers from China, where the virus outbreak began. During the trial and long after it was over, Trump was playing down the seriousness of the coronavirus, likening it to the ordinary flu and predicting that "like a miracle it will disappear." It was not until March 11, five weeks after the trial, that he first addressed the nation from the Oval Office, and not until March 13 that he declared a national emergency.
After the Senate trial ended, Trump began removing officials seen as enemies. The target list was long and varied, including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a national security aide who testified before the House under subpoena, and his twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, who had nothing to do with impeachment other than being family. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, another witness, was removed.
Ambassador William Taylor, the acting chief diplomat in Ukraine who also testified, was brought home early. John Rood, the undersecretary of defense, was ousted. Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, was pushed out early. Elaine McCusker, a Defense Department official who questioned the aid freeze had her nomination to be Pentagon comptroller withdrawn. Jessie Liu, who prosecuted Trump's friend, Roger Stone, had her nomination to be undersecretary of the Treasury withdrawn.
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who admitted at a news briefing that the security aid was held up in part to leverage Ukraine to investigate Democrats (and then tried to take his statement back), was fired March 6 even as the pandemic was beginning to spread more widely.
As the intelligence community's inspector general, Atkinson received the whistleblower complaint filed last August by a CIA official about Trump's dealings with Ukraine. Atkinson concluded that he was required by law to disclose the complaint to Congress, but the Trump administration initially refused until pressured by lawmakers.
Trump said Saturday that Atkinson should not have forwarded the whistleblower's complaint because it was fake, but in fact the bulk of the information included in it was verified by witness testimony and other evidence collected by House investigators.
"Why was the whistleblower allowed to do this?" Trump asked. "Why was he allowed to be - you call him fraudulent, or incorrect transcript. So we offered this IG - I don't know him, I don't think I ever met him. He never even came in to see me. How can you do that without seeing the person? Never came in to see me. Never requested to see me. He took this terrible inaccurate whistleblower report - right? - and he brought it to Congress."
Atkinson's dismissal Friday night, a time often used by a White House to bury news it prefers not to gain widespread attention, was disclosed in a letter to Congress but not announced by the White House press office. While it had been anticipated, it still sent waves of concern among lawmakers and intelligence veterans.
"It's awful. He did everything right," Gen. Michael Hayden, a CIA director under President George W. Bush, said of Atkinson. Trump, he added, was flouting the purpose of an inspector general. "He's just doing it because he can do it."
Democrats issued statements of protest Saturday. "Weakening our national security institutions is bad enough during a time of global calm," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "During the current instability we're faced with, it's particularly dangerous."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Trump should provide more justification for firing an inspector general. "They help drain the swamp, so any removal demands an explanation," Grassley said in a statement. "Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence. More details are needed from the administration."
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was more tempered, noting that an inspector serves at the pleasure of the president. "However," he added, "in order to be effective, the IG must be allowed to conduct his or her work independent of internal or external pressure. It is my hope the next nominee for the role of ICIG will uphold the same important standards laid out by Congress when we created this role."
As it happened, one inspector general who has earned Trump's favor for his report criticizing the FBI's handling of the Russia investigation stood by Atkinson. Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general at the Justice Department and head of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said Atkinson was known "for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight."
"That," Horowitz added, "includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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