Quite the Friday night news dump today. At about ten o’clock tonight, Trump notified Congress he has fired the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson.
In September 2019, Atkinson made sure Congress knew that then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was illegally withholding from the congressional intelligence committees a whistleblower complaint. Atkinson had examined the complaint, as required by law, and had determined it was “credible” and “urgent” and so sent it on to the acting DNI, who was supposed to send it to Congress. Instead, Maguire took it to the Department of Justice, where Attorney General Barr stopped the transmission by arguing that since it was a complaint about the president, and since the president was not a member of the intelligence community, the complaint shouldn’t go forward. And we know where it went from there.
Now Trump has fired Atkinson. The key paragraph in the letter informing Congress of his action reads as follows: “It is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of Federal programs and activities. The Inspectors General have a critical role in the achievement of these goals. As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as President, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”
This paragraph is doing a lot of work. The reference to economy, efficiency, and effectiveness should be read with the knowledge that Trump fired Maguire, who was thought to be a Trump loyalist, in late February after the chief election security advisor in his Office of the Director of National Intelligence delivered a classified briefing to Congress warning that Russia was already interfering in the 2020 election to help Trump.
Trump replaced Maguire with a fierce partisan, another acting DNI because he will have trouble making it through the Senate because he has no experience in the intelligence sector, which the law requires the DNI have. This man, Richard A. Grenell, has not given up his other government position to take the DNI job; he is still the US Ambassador to Germany.
Grenell had been vocal about his belief that the idea of Russian interference in US elections is a hoax, and as soon as he took office, he requested intelligence information on Russia and began bringing in his own people, including a key staffer, Kashyap Patel, who had worked for Devin Nunes (R-CA) and insisted that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had attacked our 2016 election. (The intelligence community says this is false, and is Russian propaganda.)
Grenell immediately froze hiring at the ODNI, prompting accusations that he was purging the agency of career professionals and replacing them with Trump loyalists. While Grenell denied it saying he was simply promoting efficiency, the accusation seemed supported by a tweet from Don Jr., who wrote that “4 internal studies in the past 2 years have said the DNI needs to be reformed. No one has done it. [Grenell] is now starting to do it.”
On March 10 Grenell’s people briefed Congress with an assessment that said the opposite of the earlier one, claiming there was no proof Putin was working on behalf of Trump.
So the statement that Trump is simply streamlining the intelligence community has a subtext.
The sentence reminding Congress that Trump has the right to fire Atkinson is also working hard. The law requires 30 days notice to the congressional intelligence committees of such a removal, but Trump fired Atkinson abruptly and then immediately put him on administrative leave, so he is effectively removed. Thus Trump is circumventing the guardrail put into the law to make sure we do not have an abrupt change in our national intelligence without congressional input. And, of course, Congress is not in session because of the coronavirus, permitting Trump to act with impunity.
This is especially problematic right now, as the Supreme Court announced today it will not hold oral arguments in April because of the coronavirus, so the pending cases concerning whether investigators can access Trump’s finances to investigate crimes and his insistence that none of his advisors can be compelled to testify before Congress are all on hold. He is clearly feeling free to flirt with lawbreaking while the court is inactive.
The sentence announcing that he no longer has “the fullest confidence” in Atkinson is also working hard. Why has his confidence faded? Why now? Is there something that was about to come out and he wants to keep it hidden? It was the intelligence community that repeatedly tried to get him to take the coronavirus seriously; perhaps there is a whistleblower complaint over that. In the chaos over supplies it seems likely that there is profiteering going on; perhaps someone knows something about that.
Or perhaps this is part of Grenell’s longer strategy to stop any investigation of Russian attacks on the 2020 election.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not dropped his determination to end the US sanctions imposed on the country after Russia invaded Ukraine, sanctions that hit oligarchs, especially Putin, hard. These sanctions were at the heart of Putin preferring Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, and have been key to much of our international affairs ever since.
One of the stories that has flown under the radar this week is that Russia is asking the United Nations to drop sanctions around the world to enable nations better to combat Covid-19. An initial resolution to that effect sponsored by Russia said “We are resolved to cooperate in addressing the disruptions to international trade and the market uncertainty due to the pandemic, mitigating the damage caused to the global economy by the spread of COVID-19, and promoting economic growth throughout the world, especially in developing countries.” The spokesman for Russia’s UN Mission, Fedor Strzhizhovskiy, said the Russian declaration was “result-oriented,” unlike the “general” one it sought to replace.
The European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Ukraine objected to the adoption of the Russian declaration, with Ukraine noting that the declaration was an attempt “to abuse humanitarian goals to plant a mine under international sanctions applied in response to gross violations of international law.”
But that is only Russia’s opening gambit. It is hard not to see the planeload of supplies Russia donated to New York this week after Trump and Putin spoke last Friday as an attempt to illustrate the benefits of lifting sanctions so Russia can work with other nations. According to Reuters, the ventilators on the plane were produced by a company under US sanctions, meaning that US firms and people are barred from doing business with it; sending those ventilators to our eager hands was a propaganda victory for Putin. Further, it was unclear whether the payment for the supplies came from the US or from Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, also under sanction. A senior US official said that the United States had purchased the supplies outright, but also noted that sanctions did “not apply to transactions for the provision of medical equipment and supplies.”
The UN Security Council will meet to discuss the pandemic next week.
For me, the kicker of this entire post is that I already had a full list of things to write about before Trump fired Atkinson. While we are all focused on the pandemic, there is a lot going on.
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Letter firing Atkinson: https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/03/politics/read-michael-atkinson-letter/index.html