Statement in Response to Firing of Inspector General Michael Atkinson

April 7, 2020

Statement from co-founders and additional members of Checks & Balances:

Not even a global public health crisis has kept the president from his continuous assault on the rule of law. Last week, President Trump notified Congress that he is firing the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson. Mr. Atkinson performed an important public service, as required by his official duties, in advancing the whistleblower complaint to Congress, which launched impeachment proceedings. Although the Senate ultimately voted not to convict and remove the president from office, the impeachment hearings included extensive witness testimony from current and former senior government officials that corroborated the accuracy of the initial whistleblower complaint. Throughout those proceedings, Mr. Atkinson conducted himself professionally and in accordance with his responsibilities.

Mr. Atkinson has released a public statement regarding his dismissal, explaining that “it is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence” in him is directly derived from his “having faithfully discharged [his] legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General[.]”  As he points out, protecting whistleblowers is, necessarily, and legally, a nonpartisan responsibility. Department of Justice Inspector General and Chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Michael Horowitz has stated that Mr. Atkinson “is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight.” We too stand with Mr. Atkinson. We wholeheartedly agree with him that “the American people deserve an honest and effective government.”

Inspectors general serve a unique role in the executive branch: they have independent investigative authority to expose wrongdoing, including unethical, wasteful or illegal activity. The position of intelligence community inspector general was created by Congress to provide comprehensive accountability and oversight over the vast intelligence enterprise. This statutory position was created specifically to be accountable to Congress. Indeed, the reason that the president has announced the firing is because the law requires that only the president can remove an individual from this important position, and he is required to provide Congress with notice and the reasons for removal. These provisions were intended to ensure that an intelligence community inspector general would only be removed in rare circumstances. A statutory inspector general should not be removed based on personality or whim or other frivolous reasons. Under no circumstances should an inspector general be removed for doing his or her job, and for following the law.

So far, the president’s firings of Senate-confirmed senior officials without legitimate basis – including individuals that he nominated – have gone without consequence to him. There have not yet been congressional hearings, or even a sustained bipartisan reaction to the removal of senior officials charged with upholding the law for being removed for doing just that. This must change; the nation must not become accustomed to the summary dismissal of Senate-confirmed officials based on illegitimate reasons. The appropriate committees of Congress should hold hearings and assess where the law can be strengthened. While a president has the authority to nominate and select officials in his administration, he does not have the authority to make a mockery of the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, statutory mandates and Senate confirmation.

The nation is currently in the midst of a crisis of historic consequence. It is in times of crisis that adherence to the law is of heightened importance. The president’s decision to fire Mr. Atkinson while this national tragedy is unfolding, and when his full attention should be on mobilizing the government to protect Americans and coordinate the federal response, underscores his apparent contempt for the rule of law and disregard for the proper functioning and democratic accountability of our government.

Jonathan H. Adler
Donald B. Ayer
C. Frederick Beckner III
John B. Bellinger III
George T. Conway III
Carrie F. Cordero
Miranda P. Fleischer
Charles Fried
Stuart M. Gerson
D. Lowell Jensen
Peter D. Keisler
Edward J. Larson
Irina D. Manta
Trevor Potter
Alan Charles Raul
Jonathan C. Rose
Paul Rosenzweig
Andrew Sagor
Robert B. Shanks
Erin L. Sheley
Ilya Somin
J.W. Verret

Each of us speaks and acts solely in our individual capacities, and our views should not be attributed to any organization with which we may be affiliated.