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Sat. 10:50 a.m.: Trump fires watchdog who handled Ukraine complaint

FILE - In this Oct. 4, 2019, file photo, Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, arrives at the Capitol in Washington for closed-door questioning about a whistleblower complaint that triggered President Donald Trump's impeachment. Trump has fired Atkinson. Trump informed the Senate intelligence committee Friday, April 3, 2020, of his decision to fire Atkinson, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump abruptly fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, sidelining an independent watchdog who played a pivotal role in his impeachment even as his White House struggles with the deepening coronavirus pandemic.

Trump informed the House and Senate intelligence committees late Friday of his decision to fire Michael Atkinson, according to letters obtained by The Associated Press. Atkinson handled the anonymous whistleblower complaint that triggered Trump’s impeachment last year.

Atkinson’s firing, which is part of a larger shakeup of the intelligence community under Trump, thrusts the president’s impeachment back into the spotlight as his administration deals with the deadly spread of the coronavirus. As Trump was removing Atkinson, the number of U.S. deaths due to the virus topped 7,000.

Trump said in the letter that it is “vital” that he has confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general, and “that is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.”

He did not elaborate, except to say that “it is extremely important that we promote the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs and activities,” and that inspectors general are critical to those goals.

Trump said in the letter to the Senate that Atkinson would be removed from office in 30 days, the required amount of time he must wait after informing Congress. He wrote that he would nominate an individual “who has my full confidence” at a later date.

According to two congressional officials, Atkinson has been placed on administrative leave, meaning he will not serve out the 30 days. One of the officials said Atkinson was only informed of his removal on Friday night. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Atkinson’s administrative leave has not been announced.

Atkinson was the first to inform Congress about the anonymous whistleblower complaint last year that described Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and his son. That complaint prompted a House investigation that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment.

Atkinson informed lawmakers of the existence of the complaint in September, saying he believed the complaint was “urgent” and “credible.” But the acting director of national intelligence at the time, Joseph Maguire, said he did not believe it met the definition of “urgent,” and tried to withhold it from Congress.

The complaint was eventually released after a firestorm, and it revealed that Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July call to investigate the Bidens. The House launched an inquiry in September, and three months later voted to impeach Trump. The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump in February.

Democrats reacted swiftly to Atkinson’s removal. The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said it was “unconscionable” that Trump would fire Atkinson in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We should all be deeply disturbed by ongoing attempts to politicize the nation’s intelligence agencies,” Warner said.

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