WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump abruptly fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, sidelining an independent watchdog who played a pivotal role in his impeachment even as his White House struggles with the deepening coronavirus pandemic.
Trump informed the House and Senate intelligence committees late Friday of his decision to fire Michael Atkinson, according to letters obtained by The Associated Press. Atkinson handled the anonymous whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump's impeachment last year.
Atkinson's firing, which is part of a larger shakeup of the intelligence community under Trump, thrusts the president's impeachment back into the spotlight as his administration deals with the deadly spread of the coronavirus. As Trump was removing Atkinson, the number of U.S. deaths due to the virus topped 7,000.
Trump said in the letter that it is "vital" that he has confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general, and "that is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general."
He did not elaborate, except to say that "it is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs and activities," and that inspectors general are critical to those goals.
Trump said in the letter to the Senate that Atkinson would be removed from office in 30 days, the required amount of time he must wait after informing Congress. He wrote that he would nominate an individual "who has my full confidence" at a later date.
According to two congressional officials, Atkinson has been placed on administrative leave, meaning he will not serve out the 30 days. One of the officials said Atkinson was only informed of his removal on Friday night. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Atkinson's administrative leave has not been announced.
Atkinson was the first to inform Congress about the anonymous whistleblower complaint last year that described Trump's pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son. That complaint prompted a House investigation that ultimately resulted in Trump's impeachment.
Atkinson informed lawmakers of the existence of the complaint in September, saying he believed the complaint was "urgent" and "credible." But the acting director of national intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire, said he did not believe it met the definition of "urgent," and tried to withhold it from Congress.
The complaint was eventually released after a firestorm, and it revealed that Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July call to investigate the Bidens. The House launched an inquiry in September, and three months later voted to impeach Trump. The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump in February.
Democrats reacted swiftly to Atkinson's removal. The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said it was "unconscionable" that Trump would fire Atkinson in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation's intelligence agencies," Warner said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the House impeachment inquiry, said "the president's dead of night decision puts our country and national security at even greater risk." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the firing "threatens to have a chilling effect against all willing to speak truth to power." And Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Trump "fires people for telling the truth."
Michael Horowitz, chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency and the inspector general at the Department of Justice who is well-liked by lawmakers in both parties, criticized the removal of Atkinson and defended his handling of the Ukraine case.
"The Inspector General Community will continue to conduct aggressive, independent oversight of the agencies that we oversee," Horowitz said in a statement.
Horowitz said that includes oversight of the $2 trillion law signed last week to help combat the coronavirus pandemic and boost the economy. Trump has already tried to limit some of the oversight that Congress set up to police that money.
Tom Monheim, a career intelligence professional, will become the acting inspector general for the intelligence community, according to an intelligence official who was not authorized to discuss personnel changes and spoke only on condition of anonymity. Monheim is currently the general counsel of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Atkinson's firing is part of a larger shakeup in the intelligence community. Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, was also removed by Trump and replaced by a Trump loyalist, Richard Grenell.
The intelligence community, which Trump has always viewed with skepticism, has been in turmoil because of the constant turnover. Atkinson is at least the seventh intelligence official to be fired, ousted or moved aside since last summer.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was created to improve coordination of the nation's 17 intelligence agencies after 9/11, has been in upheaval since former Director Dan Coats, who had a fraught relationship with Trump, announced in July 2019 that he was stepping down.
Trump nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to replace Coats, but his selection drew sharp criticism from Democrats and a lukewarm response from some Republicans because of his lack of experience.
Trump withdrew Ratcliffe's name from consideration shortly after he was nominated, but then re-nominated him again in February. The Senate has yet to move on the nomination.
Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Grenell could only serve in his post until March 11 unless the president formally nominated someone else for the job. So by selecting Ratcliffe again, Grenell can stay for up to 210 days while Ratcliffe weaves his way through the Senate confirmation process, and for another 210 days if senators reject Ratcliffe's nomination.