President Trump selected National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency general counsel Thomas Monheim to be the acting intelligence community inspector general the day after he fired Michael Atkinson from the job over frustration with how he handled last year’s Ukraine whistleblower complaint.
The announcement for Monheim, a retired Air Force colonel with years of experience across the intelligence community, was made on Twitter by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence shortly before a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing Saturday where Trump shed light on his decision to remove Atkinson.
“I thought he did a terrible job — absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report which turned out to be a fake report. It was fake. It was totally wrong,” Trump said of Atkinson. “It was about my conversation with the president of Ukraine. He took a fake report, and he brought it to Congress with an emergency, okay? Not a big Trump fan, that I can tell you.”
The president continued: “He never even came in to see me … never requested to see me. He took this terrible, inaccurate whistleblower report, right? And he brought it to Congress.”
President Trump on Michael Atkinson: “I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report…it was about my conversation with the president of Ukraine. He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress.” pic.twitter.com/nctqgPNQ7T
— CSPAN (@cspan) April 4, 2020
Trump notified Congress late Friday he was removing Atkinson from the inspector general role, effective in 30 days, because he “no longer” had full confidence in him. The president said he would submit a replacement “who has my full confidence and who meets the appropriate qualifications” at a later date.
Last year, Atkinson determined a whistleblower complaint from a CIA analyst about a phone call Trump had with Ukraine’s president related to a CrowdStrike conspiracy theory and an effort to have Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden to be “urgent” and “credible.” The inspector general forwarded the complaint to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who did not give Atkinson permission to share it with Congress after seeking guidance from the White House and Justice Department, but did allow him to notify them of its existence.
The president was impeached by the House in December on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He was acquitted on both articles of impeachment by the Senate following a trial in February.
“That man is a disgrace to IGs,” Trump said Saturday of Atkinson. “He’s a total disgrace.”
Trump also took the opportunity to criticize the Ukraine whistleblower, believed to be a career CIA analyst who was Ukraine director on the National Security Council during the end of the Obama administration and the early months of the Trump administration.
“You know who the whistleblower is and so do you and so does everybody in the room and so do I — everybody knows,” Trump said. “But they give this whistleblower status that he doesn’t deserve. He’s a fake whistleblower and, frankly, somebody ought to sue his ass off.”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence described Monheim as “a career intelligence professional and retired Colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserves” with a “distinguished career.” In his current role, the ODNI said Atkinson’s successor has been “providing legal advice to enable National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s mission consistent with the Constitution and law.” Before that, he served as the ODNI deputy general counsel and a senior legal counsel at the National Counterterrorism Center. Monheim’s military service also “includes time as a prosecutor, defense counsel, military judge, and Deputy General Counsel of the White House Military Office.”
The new spy watchdog also served in the Justice Department’s National Security Division during the George W. Bush administration and mobilized in support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell said, “We are honored to have such an incredibly qualified expert.”
Monheim said his job with the NGA was “to provide timely, accurate, practical advice to enable the agency’s missions consistent with the Constitution” during an interview with the American Bar Association’s National Security Law Today podcast in September.
Monheim called himself as “a fan of, and product of, Star Wars,” warned about the threat of foes like Russia and China, and described the way the agency helps coordinate communications for U.S. forces on land, sea, air, and space.
“The ‘final frontier’ — to use a Star Trek reference — is certainly no longer just a distant concept or an unexplored area. There are currently about 20,000 different trackable objects in space, which is remarkable. And space is increasingly congested and contested,” Monheim said, adding, “The contested part is, of course, that more countries, particularly China and Russia, are working on more capability to deter and ultimately possibly defeat our capabilities.”
Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff condemned Trump’s “dead of night decision” to fire Atkinson, warning it was “another blatant attempt to gut the independence of the Intelligence Community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing.”
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said, “Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight” and “that includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “Intelligence Committee Republicans have repeatedly stated our concerns about the abnormalities in Atkinson’s handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Finance Committee, demanded the Trump administration provide more of an explanation for why Atkinson was removed.
“Congress has been crystal clear that written reasons must be given when IGs are removed for a lack of confidence. More details are needed from the administration,” he said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr thanked Atkinson for his work, but appeared to accept Trump’s reasoning for letting him go.
“Over the last two years, he turned the Office of the ICIG around, restoring an important organization,” Burr said, adding, “Like any political appointee, the Inspector General serves at the behest of the Executive.”
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “The president must immediately cease his attacks on those who sacrifice to keep America safe, particularly during this time of national emergency.”
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