The idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—especially one who’s been rewarded for bad behavior—is particularly poignant when we consider President Trump’s firing Friday of Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the Intelligence Community. Trump has a track record of firing and retaliating against officials who don’t blindly follow his orders and mimic his mood swings, no matter how unethical, illegal, dangerous, or irresponsible.
At the same time, Trump has a track record of decimating our intelligence agencies. His history of insulting the intelligence community, cherry-picking intelligence to suit his personal narratives, prioritizing loyalty over experience, and rooting out anyone who speaks truth (a core mission of the intelligence community) that he doesn’t like have been the key themes underlining his relationship with the intelligence community.
Plus, Trump has never supported oversight, unless of course it’s focused on Democrats. The impetus for Atkinson’s firing—namely his work to fulfill his statutory obligations to pass on what he judged to be an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint about the president’s call with Ukrainian President Zelensky—didn’t jibe with Trump’s personal desire to avoid oversight.
His political cronies, House Republicans on the intelligence community, even started investigating Atkinson. The inspector general’s job is largely to detect fraud, waste, and mismanagement, not to be complicit in it. The IC IG’s mandate is to do so with integrity, professionalism, and independence. Atkinson fulfilled those responsibilities, and he was fired for doing so.
But, Trump has largely escaped paying any price for his actions. The Republican Party for the most part has stayed silent about his degradation of intelligence and manipulation of oversight to shield himself.
While Atkinson’s firing comes as no surprise in light of the president’s habitual misuse and abuse of the intelligence community, coupled with his disdain for oversight more broadly, it will have costs for U.S. national security today, tomorrow, and further down the road.
The timing of Atkinson’s removal could not be worse. Trump’s decision to fire Atkinson in the midst of an unprecedented national crisis signals what his priorities are: his personal insecurity trumps national security. His need to settle a perceived vendetta and to remove someone who he perceives to have wronged him is putting additional pressure on an already strained IC.
This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the US government. The coronavirus crisis has introduced myriad new threats for the IC to analyze while concurrently straining resources as the workforce tries to protect itself through measures like social distancing, working from home, and shift work.
This is not the time when the intelligence community needs any fewer competent officials on board. Nor is it the time to put more pressure on intelligence officials by introducing an unnecessary transition in IG leadership. That is a drain of resources as staff scramble to brief up the new acting IG. It’s undoubtedly a further blow to morale.
And, Trump didn’t just fire Atkinson and allow him to serve out his statutorily outlined 30-day transition period. Atkinson reportedly didn’t know about his removal in advance and has now been placed on administration leave.
The relevant statute requires that both intelligence committees be notified 30 days before the inspector general can be dismissed. By putting Atkinson on leave and not giving him the time to brief up his successor and transition his work there’s a real chance that someone drops the ball, somewhere, on critical work. But, then again, maybe that’s what the President is hoping for - that oversight is damaged. This may be an operational bonus for POTUS.
An actual leader—a responsible president—would minimize pressure on the IC right now because they have critical national security work to do and cycling out one of the president’s perceived enemies doesn’t fall within that necessary for national security to do list.
Atkinson’s removal is about retribution but it’s also about sending a message to the intel community at large and to everyone considering throwing their name in the mix as a nominee to fill Atkinson’s shoes. Trump’s letter to Congress regarding Atkinson’s firing noted that Atkinson no longer has his “fullest confidence.” However, there is no indication that Atkinson did not perform his job.
In fact, the chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency—an independent executive branch agency—and the IG of the Justice Department reacted to Atkinson’s removal in saying that “Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight.”
Atkinson lost Trump’s confidence because he wouldn’t become a partisan tool when both as an IG and as a member of the intelligence community, objective, non-partisan work is part of the job description. Because of Trump’s actions, however, anyone considering taking the job will have to be willing not to uphold the law but to bend it to please POTUS.
The broader and longer-term impact on recruitment and retention in the IC is that Trump has changed the cost benefit analysis associated with serving in the intelligence community right now. In the short term, at least, the IG’s office is hamstrung in its ability to fully function at a time when it is sorely needed for whistleblowers, for efficiency, and for oversight of critical intelligence-related issues impacting our national security, including coronavirus.
Trump’s narcissism—his prioritization of self over country—is on full display. He’s never been known for his intelligence, but this latest move in a litany of dangerous behavior is going to cost us.