Michael Atkinson is the latest prosecutor thrust to the center of a Trump-era political controversy.
Atkinson, who has been the inspector general of the intelligence community for a little more than a year under President Trump, is described as a no-nonsense, serious and nonpartisan career prosecutor who showed a strong commitment to the law throughout his nearly two-decade career at the Department of Justice.
“In my experience, he was a well-respected prosecutor. A very good, committed, dedicated prosecutor,” said one person who worked with Atkinson in the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C.
Now Atkinson is at the center of a political storm with major implications for the country.
It was Atkinson who first informed Congress of a whistleblower complaint that has since been revealed to involve a conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s leader.
Atkinson, who determined the complaint was an “urgent concern,” is seen as a person who would not raise the alarm unless it were serious, bolstering the whistleblower’s credibility.
“He wouldn’t strike me as someone who is looking to get his name in the middle of any story,” the person who worked with him said.
Under pressure, the White House released a memo Wednesday that showed Trump encouraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with the attorney general and his personal lawyer to investigate unsubstantiated allegations against 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe Biden on the July 25 call.
The details have emboldened House Democrats, who on Tuesday launched a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump.
Atkinson worked in private practice as a partner at law firm Winston & Strawn before deciding to pursue a career in public service following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Atkinson worked in the fraud section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division between 2002 and 2006 and served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., for the next decade, leading the office’s fraud and public corruption section.
Later, he worked on high-profile cases in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, including the corruption prosecution of former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson (La.). During the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder awarded Atkinson a distinguished service award for his role in the Jefferson case.
Atkinson was also involved in the investigation of the illegal financing of former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign, a long-running probe that ended in 2015 without charges against the Democrat despite prosecutors previously alleging the ex-official’s knowledge of the scheme.
Atkinson’s previous work could not have prepared him for the unprecedented situation in which he now finds himself.
The intelligence community inspector general’s office declined to comment for this article.
Atkinson first notified the House Intelligence Committee of the whistleblower complaint on Sept. 9. But Atkinson clashed with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and the Justice Department, who argued it didn’t meet the definition of an “urgent concern” and therefore did not require transmission to Congress.
That put Atkinson in an incredibly tricky position on Capitol Hill last week as he testified behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee and resisted many questions from lawmakers.
Democrats have targeted Maguire and the Trump administration with vociferous criticism over the past week. Meanwhile, Atkinson has maintained a positive reputation on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers recognizing him for his professionalism and Democrats in particular for his display of independence.
“I think he’s very sincere, very professional. I think he wants to do the right thing. But he’s caught in some ambiguity of the law. And he has Department of Justice telling you one thing, and he’s got his own directions, which are unclear,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), an Intelligence panel member. “I think it just leaves him in a bit of a hard spot.”
A Democratic Intelligence aide said the panel “has been incredibly impressed with Atkinson’s professionalism, but even more so his independence and neutrality in adhering to the strict letter of the law to protect the whistleblower and the whistleblower process.”
Since Atkinson’s closed-door testimony, the controversy surrounding Trump’s call with Zelensky has spiraled, culminating in the White House’s release of the partial transcript on Wednesday.
Maguire is due to testify — in public — before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday in what is sure to be a tense meeting between House Democrats now pursuing impeachment against Trump and the president’s top intelligence official.
The Trump administration also began showing lawmakers a redacted version of the whistleblower complaint Wednesday afternoon, after first resisting its delivery.
Atkinson was tapped by Trump for the role in late 2017, but his nomination was held up for months by senators demanding information from then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about the ouster of the leader of a whistleblower protection office.
The position of intelligence community watchdog requires Atkinson to maintain a “sort of a dual loyalty to the executive branch and to Congress,” said Steven Cash, a lawyer and former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats.
During his confirmation hearing, Atkinson committed to keeping lawmakers apprised of significant complaints, to protecting whistleblowers and to approaching the position with an air of independence.
“I think that my training as a prosecutor helps in terms of having a commitment to independence and integrity, as well as discipline and understanding that there is a need to speak truth to power,” Atkinson told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “The hard part sometimes is finding the truth. The truth, as a prosecutor in a criminal case, it’s difficult. I expect it’ll be even more difficult dealing with secret organizations.”
“So I certainly appreciate the challenge that is out there for me,” he continued. “But in terms of the independence and integrity required of the position, I think my training as a prosecutor will come in very handy.”
Atkinson was confirmed in May 2018 and has quickly earned praise for working closely with Congress and addressing concerns over dysfunction in the intelligence community inspector general’s office, which at the time of his confirmation had been the subject of critical reporting.
Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to Coats in July praising Atkinson for approaching his role “with a degree of zeal and dedication that is welcome in an office previously rife with challenges.”
Atkinson and Maguire are expected to meet behind closed doors with the Senate Intelligence Committee separately on Thursday, where they will both likely face a barrage of questions from lawmakers over the complaint.
“He is precisely following the rules and being very, very careful on it,” said Cash. “I suspect Maguire is also. It looks like everyone is trying to check every procedural and legal box as this moves forward.”
Olivia Beavers contributed.