Schiff, Nadler call on DOJ watchdog to investigate Barr's remarks about firing of intelligence community IG

Schiff, Nadler call on DOJ watchdog to investigate Barr's remarks about firing of intelligence community IG
© Greg Nash

A pair of top House Democrats are calling on Justice Department oversight officials to investigate Attorney General William BarrBill BarrWe haven't seen how low it can go Trump lashes out at Toomey, Romney after Roger Stone clemency criticism GOP senator says Trump commuting Stone was a 'mistake' MORE's remarks about the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, claiming Barr intentionally mischaracterized Atkinson's conduct. 

Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffStone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Overnight Defense: US formally rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims | House set to consider defense policy bill next week | 57 injured as firefighters battle warship blaze Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to reopening schools MORE (D-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTexas Democrat proposes legislation requiring masks in federal facilities Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' Nadler wins Democratic primary MORE (D-N.Y.) in a letter Monday urged Justice Department (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz and acting Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility Jeffrey Ragsdale to review Barr's claim that Atkinson ignored a DOJ opinion and therefore deserved to be removed.

"In a televised interview on April 9, 2020, Mr. Barr blatantly mischaracterized Mr. Atkinson's conduct and the DOJ's own actions relating to the complaint filed last summer by an Intelligence Community whistleblower," the two wrote in the letter. 

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"Mr. Barr’s misleading remarks appear to have been aimed at justifying the President’s retaliatory decision to fire Mr. Atkinson."

Atkinson, who had served as the intelligence community inspector general since May 2018, was terminated from his position earlier this month in what was widely seen as retaliation for his handling of the whistleblower complaint about President TrumpDonald John TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities MORE's conduct with Ukraine.

Atkinson deemed the whistleblower's allegations both urgent and credible  — a conclusion that triggered a process for Congress to be alerted to the complaint and ultimately launched an impeachment inquiry, which culminated with Trump’s acquittal in a Senate impeachment trial.

 

Democrats, oversight watchdogs, and some Republicans have defended Atkinson, saying he correctly followed processes in place to deal with whistleblower complaints. Their defense of the official contrasts with remarks Barr made in an interview with Fox News's Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook- Schools weigh reopening options Trump's July 4 weekend comes with COVID-19 backdrop Trump dings CNN, 'Morning Joe' ratings as Tucker Carlson sets record MORE earlier this month.

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"[Atkinson] was obliged to follow the interpretation of the Department of Justice and he ignored it," Barr said, referring to an opinion issued by DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). "I think the president was correct in firing him."

The OLC argued that acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireWells Fargo told employees to delete TikTok from work phones Hillicon Valley: Pompeo floats TikTok ban | Civil rights groups slam Facebook after call | Election security funding included in proposal Pompeo: US 'certainly looking at' ban on Chinese social media apps like TikTok MORE was not required to send the whistleblower complaint to Congress under the statute, contesting whether there was "urgent concern" and arguing that there was information that was subject to executive privilege — despite such an authority not being formally invoked.

In September, Atkinson wrote the DOJ to say that he stood by his determination that the whistleblower complaint was an "urgent concern." He also voiced concern that the OLC's reasoning "not only appears contrary to settled understandings of the DNI's responsibilities and authorities, but is gravely troubling."

Democrats and other inspectors general have defended Atkinson against claims that he disregarded the DOJ legal opinion concerning the complaint.

"Contrary to Mr. Barr’s false assertion that Mr. Atkinson 'ignored' DOJ’s legal guidance, Mr. Atkinson explicitly acknowledged being bound by OLC’s opinion, while strongly disagreeing with it," they wrote.

Schiff and Nadler pointed to a letter sent Friday by Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein (Calif.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerGOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats MORE (Va.), who argued that Atkinson faithfully carried out his responsibilities as a watchdog, operating within the law.

They also cited testimony in September from Maguire, who told the House Intelligence Committee that Atkinson handled the Ukraine whistleblower complaint “by the book” and in accordance with statutory requirements.  

The two House chairmen noted that only "after immense public pressure and a subpoena issued by the House Intelligence Committee did acting DNI Maguire produce the complaint to the congressional intelligence committees in late September 2019."

Their letter and Barr's remarks come after Atkinson was suddenly fired earlier this month. Trump made no effort to disguise why he wanted the official gone, saying it was Atkinson’s handling of the whistleblower complaint that led him to lose confidence in the watchdog. The president called Atkinson a “disgrace" and argued that he “did a terrible job.”

“He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report — it was fake. It was totally wrong,” Trump said about the readout of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress, with an emergency.”

While Trump has repeatedly dismissed the allegations of the complaint and characterized his call with Zelensky as “perfect,” witness testimony and other evidence presented by House investigators supported much of the whistleblower’s allegations.

Atkinson, in response, has continued to defend his handling of the complaint and in a letter sent to lawmakers and reporters after his ousting, he urged other government workers to speak out if they see wrongdoing.

In their letter, the Democrats sought to claim that Barr and the White House were in the wrong.

"In maligning Mr. Atkinson and falsely portraying him as insubordinate, Mr. Barr misrepresented DOJ’s legal opinion concerning the whistleblower complaint," they said.

"Mr. Barr’s remarks also ignored the impropriety of DOJ’s coordination with the White House to prevent a whistleblower complaint concerning presidential misconduct from reaching Congress," they continued, arguing that the administration sought to keep Congress in the dark about the existence of the complaint.