Attorney General William Barr said the president was right to dismiss the intelligence community inspector general who handled the anonymous whistleblower complaint that prompted a partisan impeachment against the president last year.
The attorney general made the comments in a Fox News interview aired on Thursday, saying that the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, exceeded his authority when he disclosed to Congress the whistleblower complaint that centered around a phone call President Donald Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“From the vantage point of the Department of Justice, he had interpreted his statute—which is a fairly narrow statute that gave him jurisdiction over wrongdoing by intelligence people—and tried to turn it into a commission to explore anything in the government and immediately reported to Congress without letting the Executive Branch look at it and determine whether there was any problem,” Barr said during the interview.
On April 3, Trump sent a letter to the Senate intelligence committee and other congressional intelligence officials that he was removing Atkinson from office in 30 days, after having lost confidence in him. The president then appointed National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency general counsel Thomas Monheim to act as his replacement.
Atkinson played a central role in the series of events leading up to the impeachment effort against Trump last year. He vetted the anonymous whistleblower complaint and determined that it should be forwarded to Congress as a matter of urgency. The complaint contained allegations about Trump’s conduct during a phone call with Zelensky last July.
The whistleblower, whose name has not been released, admitted in the complaint that he or she was “not a direct witness to most of the events described” but had received the information from “colleagues’ accounts,” which he or she found credible.
House Democrats used the complaint as a basis to accuse Trump of leveraging his office and withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine to obtain “dirt” on a political opponent—2020 Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.
A transcript of the call, which was released by the White House shortly after the allegations were made, revealed that Trump had asked Zelensky to “look into” Biden’s dealings in Ukraine but hadn’t pressured him or used any quid pro quo in the call. Trump has repeatedly described the call as “perfect.”
Trump was eventually impeached in December by the House of Representatives, which no House Republican voted in favor of, and a few House Democrats voted against. He was acquitted by the Senate earlier this year.
The president’s decision to dismiss Atkinson was met with rebuke from Democrats, who called it a “retaliatory firing.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also criticized Trump for the dismissal, calling it a “shameful late-night firing” and a “brazen act against a patriotic public servant.”
Trump defended the firing, saying that Atkinson mishandled the whistleblower complaint, which he said did not have to be rushed.
“He’s a total disgrace,” Trump said. “That’s my decision. I have the absolute right.”
Meanwhile, Atkinson also suggested that he was fired because of his handling of the whistleblower complaint.
“It is hard not to think that the president’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial inspector general, and from my commitment to continue to do so,” he said in a statement on April 5.
During the interview on Thursday, Barr also said that he was troubled by the findings from the ongoing investigation into the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation on Trump’s campaign during the 2016 presidential election, which is led by U.S. Attorney John Durham.
“My own view is that the evidence shows that we’re not dealing with just the mistakes or sloppiness,” Barr said. “There was something far more troubling here. We’re going to get to the bottom of it. And if people broke the law and we can establish that with the evidence, they will be prosecuted.”
Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.