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Schiff, Nadler Call for Inspector General to Review Attorney General Barr’s Comments on Atkinson Firing

Washington, April 20, 2020

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Acting Director of the Office of Professional Responsibility Jeffrey Ragsdale and Inspector General Michael Horowitz. In the letter, Schiff and Nadler call for a review of comments by Attorney General William Barr regarding the firing of Inspector General Michael Atkinson.

During the interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Barr blatantly mischaracterized Mr. Atkinson’s conduct and DOJ’s own actions relating to the complaint filed last summer by an Intelligence Community whistleblower and misrepresented DOJ’s legal opinion concerning the whistleblower complaint. This continues a pattern of misrepresentations and false allegations of misconduct by others in order to defend the President’s own misconduct that a federal district court judge called “misleading.”

In the letter, Schiff and Nadler write: “Public confidence in our system of justice depends on the integrity, fairness, and impartiality of DOJ’s leadership.  It is, therefore, imperative that the Attorney General be held to the same high standard expected of all Department personnel, particularly in matters involving the President’s own interests.”

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Mr. Ragsdale and Mr. Horowitz:

We write to request that you investigate whether recent public statements by Attorney General William Barr regarding former Inspector General of the Intelligence Community (ICIG) Michael Atkinson violated applicable Department of Justice (DOJ) policies and rules of professional conduct.

In a televised interview on April 9, 2020, Mr. Barr blatantly mischaracterized Mr. Atkinson’s conduct and DOJ’s own actions relating to the complaint filed last summer by an Intelligence Community whistleblower.   The complaint detailed President Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine to announce a politically-motivated investigation of his rival in the 2020 presidential election.  Mr. Barr’s remarks followed the President’s admission on April 4 that he fired Mr. Atkinson in retaliation for Mr. Atkinson’s handling—in accordance with the law—of the whistleblower complaint.   The House of Representatives’ investigation independently confirmed the whistleblower’s account of the President’s abuse of power, for which the President was subsequently impeached.  Mr. Barr’s misleading remarks appear to have been aimed at justifying the President’s retaliatory decision to fire Mr. Atkinson.

As Senators Diane Feinstein and Mark Warner underscored in their April 17 letter to you,  Mr. Atkinson neither “ignored” DOJ guidance, nor acted contrary to his legal and professional obligations in handling the whistleblower complaint, as Mr. Barr alleged.   To the contrary, Mr. Atkinson faithfully discharged his legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General in accordance with federal law.

Then-acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire affirmed this in his sworn testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on September 26, 2019.  Mr. Maguire testified that Mr. Atkinson handled the Ukraine whistleblower complaint “by the book” and in strict accordance with statutory requirements.   Mr. Atkinson never transmitted the whistleblower complaint to the House or Senate Intelligence Committees, nor did he reveal its contents to Congress.  Instead, Mr. Atkinson properly alerted the congressional intelligence committees to the existence of the whistleblower complaint after he was unable to resolve a difference with acting DNI Maguire about whether the complaint should be transmitted to Congress.   Mr. Maguire testified that he supported Mr. Atkinson’s decision to alert the congressional intelligence committees.  In short, President Trump fired Mr. Atkinson simply for doing his job and following the law.

In maligning Mr. Atkinson and falsely portraying him as insubordinate, Mr. Barr misrepresented DOJ’s legal opinion concerning the whistleblower complaint.  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.  In order to keep Congress in the dark about the existence of the complaint, the White House and DOJ collaborated to develop meritless justifications designed to circumvent the clear statutory requirement that all such complaints “shall” be transmitted to the congressional intelligence committees.  

Specifically, DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a secret opinion that absurdly concluded that the statute—contrary to its plain text—did not require acting DNI Maguire to forward the whistleblower complaint to Congress.   For its part, the White House asserted that the complaint involved information subject to executive privilege that acting DNI Maguire was not authorized to release to Congress—even though executive privilege cannot be invoked to shield misconduct and was, in fact, never invoked by the President.  

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.  In a non-public letter to OLC, Mr. Atkinson highlighted the contorted reasoning and troubling national security and oversight implications of OLC’s opinion that “election interference by foreign actions … would not involve an activity or program of the intelligence community under the DNI’s supervision.”   Mr. Atkinson correctly observed that the DNI is expressly charged by statute and executive orders—including one issued by President Trump himself—to lead the Intelligence Community’s effort to protect the nation from foreign election interference.  After OLC’s opinion and Mr. Atkinson’s objections were made public, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) sent a letter to OLC strongly backing Mr. Atkinson’s position.

Notwithstanding Mr. Atkinson’s meritorious objections, the coordinated efforts by the White House and DOJ succeeded—temporarily—in preventing Congress from receiving the whistleblower complaint.  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.  The role of Attorney General Barr and other senior DOJ officials, in coordination with the White House, in attempting to prevent the whistleblower complaint from reaching Congress—as required by law—warrants your attention. 

Moreover, Mr. Barr’s recent remarks are part of a disturbing pattern of misrepresenting facts and falsely alleging misconduct by other government officials in order to defend the President’s own misconduct.  In the year since Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Barr has persistently sought to mislead the American public in an effort to undermine the Special Counsel’s investigation and findings, as well as those of the Department’s own Office of Inspector General.  Indeed, a federal judge recently examined Mr. Barr’s “lack of candor” and concluded that Mr. Barr “distorted the findings in the Mueller Report,” which “cause[d] the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump.”

Public confidence in our system of justice depends on the integrity, fairness, and impartiality of DOJ’s leadership.  It is, therefore, imperative that the Attorney General be held to the same high standard expected of all Department personnel, particularly in matters involving the President’s own interests.  We appreciate your prompt attention to this request.

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